Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director to Step Down in March to Join Human Rights Watch

Press Release January 8, 2020
Media Contact

Matt Sutton 212-613-8026
[email protected]

New York, NY – Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, announced in a letter to staff today that she will be stepping down from the leadership of the organization on March 6 to assume a new position. DPA’s board of directors is actively discussing the process for identifying its next permanent leader and will announce next steps in coming weeks. Meanwhile, Richard Burns, who has outstanding experience as a long-time executive director and interim ED in many settings, including most recently at Lambda Legal, will step in as interim ED of DPA. 

“I continue to hold the core belief that… ending the war on drugs is critical to addressing many of the social injustices on which I have worked throughout my career, both in the United States and globally,” said McFarland in the letter. “DPA is poised for tremendous success… and I will continue cheering you on, and helping in any way I can.”

An award-winning author and human rights advocate with extensive international and domestic experience, McFarland has led DPA since September 2017, overseeing the organization at a time of significant change after the departure of its founder, Ethan Nadelmann. During her tenure, DPA has expanded its work on decriminalizing possession of all drugs for personal use and exploring regulatory models for drugs other than marijuana. It succeeded in getting the MORE Act—the most comprehensive marijuana legislation ever introduced in Congress—through the US House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee and won expansion of syringe exchange in Florida. The organization has pressed forward with highly effective campaigns to authorize supervised consumption sites (SCS) in multiple states across the country and to legalize marijuana in New York and New Mexico. And it has released Safety First, a first-of-its-kind harm reduction-based drug education curriculum for teens, after successfully piloting it in two major cities.

Yet at the same time as she was leading DPA, McFarland survived breast cancer and dealt with multiple other challenges in her personal life, all while raising a toddler. McFarland explained to staff that these events had made her reassess her priorities, which in turn led her to seek a position that would be a better fit for her at this time. In April, she will join Human Rights Watch as senior legal advisor focused on the Americas and the United States.

DPA’s board of directors, which has been aware of McFarland’s plans, expressed sorrow at her departure but gratitude for her work and confidence in DPA’s strength.

“It has been a joy to work with Maria, who has led the Drug Policy Alliance with exemplary grit, integrity, intelligence, and dedication to justice, as well as to the critically important details of managing the organization,” said Ira Glasser, who served as board chair for most of McFarland’s tenure. “She has done this work with tremendous grace, even while overcoming significant health and other challenges. Ordinarily, I would have strenuously tried to persuade her to stay, but the highly personal nature of her decision precluded that.”

“The Drug Policy Alliance has been lucky to benefit from Maria’s strong leadership for over two years, achieving major wins, improving its internal systems, and refining its strategic priorities for the future,” added current board chair Derek Hodel. “Maria will be leaving behind an effective, well-structured organization, with an outstanding senior management team that is well-positioned to seize the many opportunities available in the drug policy reform space.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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