Conference Report: Law and Society Association Annual Meeting

The 2013 Law and Society Association Annual Meeting (May 30-June 2) in Boston concluded yesterday. As an interdisciplinary conference of considerable size (over 600 panels) that attracts a diverse range of policy, academic, practitioner panelists and attendees, this annual meeting seems to offer rich opportunities to venture outside of one’s narrow subfield and to have unexpected yet fruitful conversations.

ImageGiven the overlapping interests of those who work on law and psychoactive substances, this conference may be a future forum of interest for ADHS readers.  The conference has been extant for several decades, deriving its institutional origins from the founding of the Law and Society Association (LSA) in 1964. This year’s theme was “Power, Privilege, and the Pursuit of Justice: Legal Challenges in Precarious Times.”

One panel that may be of interest to Points readers was titled “Drugs in the 21st Century.” Alex Kreit (Thomas Jefferson School of Law) chaired the panel, with James Bradford (Northeastern University) and the documentary filmmaker Rebecca Richmond Cohen (Harvard Law School) serving as fellow panelists.

ImageKreit opened the panel with brief introductory remarks about the future of drug consumption and control in the US.

ImageThen the first panelist, Richmond Cohen, began her presentation by showing a clip of her documentary, Code of the West  (a trailer,  a more substantive clip and associated NYT article are here). While the documentary follows the story of marijuana policy reform in Montana, the conference presentation focused more closely on the case of Chris Williams.

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“Code of the West is a film about what happens when there are conflicting codes: when our formal laws conflict with each other, when our social norms conflict with our laws, and when different segments of our society embrace divergent norms.”

In 2011, federal agents arrested Chris Williams, a Montana grower of medical marijuana. He was prosecuted under federal law and faced a mandatory minimum sentence of more than 80 years, even though his business was legal under Montana state law (coverage). This case highlighted the inconsistency between federal and state legislation. As a Schedule I substance, the federal government does not permit the medical use of marijuana, but state law trends have moved in the opposite direction. Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia allow the regulated sale of medical marijuana. Eventually, Williams’ sentence was reduced through a post-conviction agreement to five years and a fine. Ultimately, Cohen argued for more sensible and coherent marijuana legislation through greater convergence of federal and state laws. The audience offered questions on everything from the Ogden Memo to the role of documentary filmmaking in shaping social debates.

ImageThe second panelist, James Bradford, gave a paper on opium regulation in the 1960s and 70s. Bradford recently completed a dissertation at Northeastern University titled “Opium in a Time of Uncertainty: State Formation and Drug Control in Afghanistan during the Musahiban Dynasty 1929-1978.” While much of the current scholarship situates the problem of Afghan opium within tropes of lawlessness and statelessness, Bradford’s paper reconfigured the development of this narcotic regime within a “historical process of state formation, social resistance, and fragmentation in the region.”

Several fascinating details emerged during his presentation, which may be more familiar to those who work on opium and Afghanistan. Bradford pointed to earlier Afghan requests to develop a legal pharmaceutical opium industry, and how US aid and intervention played a role in driving regulation that locals resisted. Pointing to the complex social and economic forces that shape the circulation of psychoactive substances, the author also explored how the Tajik minority in Badakshan province viewed opium restrictions as hostile state action that was equally embroiled in identity politics as much as substance regulation.

Kreit ended the panel by suggesting that drugs scholars were living in a particularly exciting and transformative time, and he predicted a dramatic shift in US psychoactive substance policy in the 21st century.

Readers—how do you think drug policy might change in the next few years?