Tuesday morning a couple of hundred people left New York City having spent the previous 48 hours deep in the bowels of New York University on 5th Avenue. The conference they attended points the way to the next major wave of global drug policy innovation.

Just as they departed, thousands of diplomats arrived in New York, for a seemingly much grander event, UNGASS; long heralded as a seminal General Assembly, it is ultimately proving to be a dismal, maddening affair. The denouement over the past month has been immensely frustrating for the Latin American governments, who have endured years of drug war-inflicted chaos, and the NGOs and campaigners who have invested so much time, trying to shape a more progressive outcome. The forces ranged against them were too strong and recalcitrant. UNGASS will change nothing, but the Cannabis Policy and Science Summit just might.

After UNGASS, there are twin trajectories for drug policy reform: cannabis, and the national and regional policy innovations to legalise and regulate it. This was the focus of the Cannabis Policy and Science Summit at NYU. There has never been an event like it before. Sponsorship packages ranged up to $75,000 the admission fee was $600. All this for an industry that was only legalised three years ago.

Washington Square, New York University. (Wikimedia Commons)
Washington Square, New York University. (Wikimedia Commons)

There are many ways to make a lot of money in America. For some, legal cannabis is the new best way to do so, and they were in the building, with the familiar, ancillary entourage of modern capitalism; investors, lawyers, PR teams, data analysts and marketeers. But this was a conference taking place inside New York University. It retained the rarified air of an academic symposium, and it was the public health academics, policy makers and regulators who got to go first.

We are in the early days of cannabis legalisation in North America, but the battle lines are already being drawn.

In the first sessions on Sunday, heavyweight public policy academics railed against the current trajectory of US state legalisation. Prof Jonathan Caulkins, the most respected US scholar in the field, gloomily predicted that the public health community will look back in horror in thirty years time if his contemporaries allow legalisation and regulation to evolve, in a manner consistent with the current Colorado approach:

You want people who want, [marijuana] to be able to get it, but you don’t want anybody to be pushing it at them.

Other speakers joined this chorus of disapproval. That very morning, the most popular post on the New York Times website was Alan Feuer’s travel piece on the Denver tourist trail. It seemed to confirm my new academic friends’ worst fears.

Maybe I just like drinking, but I have to say, I didn’t get it. I mean, I got it: It was cool getting high without fear of being hassled by the cops. But was that really something around which you could plan a whole vacation? I understand that people go on wine trips, but generally speaking, they’re not popping bottles of shiraz the minute they leave the baggage claim. When I thought about it later, it occurred to me that what I might have been reacting to was the hard sell that Denver’s ganja-preneurial class was putting on these poor, weed-repressed out-of-towners, the way in which their stifled desire for pot was being commodified

But Caulkins and his peers, despite the vehemence of their concerns, ultimately concede that the regulation momentum is now unstoppable. When given the chance in state ballots the people are increasingly deciding that legal pot available online and via licensed vendors is what they want. A mosaic of state regulated markets will emerge across the US over the next five years.

You would no more expect public health academics to elicit enthusiasm about free market solutions to drug reform, than you would entrepreneurs to be deterred by academic doom mongering.

Frustratingly the two tribes were unable to lock antlers at this event. When the business and investment sessions took place the academics were elsewhere.

A stand out contributor from the business community was Dan Sutton, the burly, ebullient MD of Vancouver’s Tantalus Labs. If the policy makers and public health community need to quell their anguish about new regulated markets then Sutton is the guy. Fast talking, fabulously articulate and impassioned about sun-grown medical cannabis, his manic energy and hyper sociability mark him out as future star of this new industry. Sutton believes that meeting social interest and self interest is the future of his business and the industry. For him, the academic input was ‘scolding and fear mongering, the anti-commerce language alienating’.

Dan Sutton (Tantalus Labs)
Dan Sutton (Tantalus Labs)

It wasn’t obvious to me that the policy makers I met at the event perceived commercial enterprises as drivers of social change. This will need to change.

No one who attended this summit could leave in any doubt that cannabis is now going to be legalised and regulated across the United States. How this happens, in a way that drives out the pernicious black market and safeguards public health, will require a closer knitting together of policy expertise and enterprise zeal. They can’t just be in the same building, they need to be in the same room and around the same table.

In the UK if we are going to move forward the debate about regulation let’s make sure the Caulkins and Suttons lock antlers from the outset.

Our Editor-in-chief Steve Moore reporting from UNGASS 2016 in New York City.

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