BPR Interview: Ethan Nadelmann

Henry Knight spoke with Ethan Nadelmann, the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based non-profit advocating for more liberal drug laws. He was formerly a professor of political science at Princeton University.

Brown Political Review: What is the objective of the Drug Policy Alliance?

Ethan Nadelmann: The mission of the Drug Policy Alliance is to reduce the role of criminalization and the criminal justice system in drug control to the maximum extent consistent with protecting public safety and health. It means moving policies down the spectrum from the punitive, prohibitionist policies we’ve had in this country as much as possible in the other direction. Roughly a third of our work focuses on marijuana law reform, another third focuses on reducing mass incarceration and the racial injustice of all this, and the last third focuses on treating drug use and addiction as health issues. For us drug policy is, first and foremost, a human rights issue.

BPR: What liberties are at stake in the war on drugs?

EN: I think the most fundamental is the criminalization of people for the simple possession of small amounts for their own use. There’s a core principle at stake, which is that in a free society, nobody should be punished simply for what they put into their body, absent harm to others. I think there is no legitimate basis in ethics, medicine, or even the Bible for making a legal distinction between people who use or are addicted to alcohol or tobacco and those who use or are addicted to heroin or LSD. That’s the most serious violation of human rights we find in the Drug War.

BPR: David Brook’s recent piece, “Weed: Been There, Done That,” seems to imply a mutual exclusivity between smoking marijuana and reading the classics of literature and philosophy. How do you push back against his assumption that using marijuana makes it harder for us to be the people we want to be?

EN: It was an utterly absurd piece and I think he was rightly ripped to shreds for it. It was about the silliest form of paternalistic thinking I can imagine showing up in a reputable publication. Was he suggesting that we don’t have people who smoke marijuana throughout the upper echelons of American society? Never mind the fact that he essentially ignores the racial disproportionalities and injustice of the way that marijuana laws are enforced. He ignores the fact that marijuana is already widely available in our society. I was almost embarrassed for him at the low quality of the piece he wrote.

BPR: What does the DPA do to combat racial disparities in drug law enforcement?

EN: That’s been a huge passion for my organization. We’ve been deeply involved in the efforts to roll back the mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses at both the state and federal level. We designed and won a ballot initiative in California in 2000 – prop 36 – that prohibited the incarceration of people for simple drug possession provided they didn’t have a criminal history. We’ve been heavily involved in the effort in NYC to target the NYPD’s policy of arresting massive numbers of young, black men for having marijuana in their pockets. I think more people are now aware of the fact that if you were to randomly stop 100 young black men, 100 young white men, and 100 young Hispanic men and put your hands in their pockets, roughly the same percent would have marijuana. But in every town in America, the black kids are 3, 5, 7 times more likely to get arrested for that offense. I think this information that we’re involved in producing and publicizing has helped transform the dialogue. This has become a major priority for us.

BPR: How do you combat the popularly held notion that drugs are dangerous under any circumstances?

EN: The public perception of marijuana is increasingly catching up with the science and empirical evidence. A growing percentage of Americans understand that marijuana by and large isn’t that dangerous or addictive, and nobody dies from smoking it responsibly. I think that the whole medical marijuana issue helped to transform the public discussion around marijuana. It enabled people to see that marijuana was a medicine for many people, especially the elderly ill. With respect to the other drugs, it’s a much greater challenge that requires relentless public education. The conversation surrounding the recent death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman shows that Americans remain profoundly uneducated and misinformed about the realities of heroin. Most people think that an overdose happens because you take too much heroin or too much of a pharmaceutical opiate, when in fact so far as we can tell, most overdose fatalities result not just from taking too much of a drug, but from potentiating it with alcohol or sleeping pills. Remarkably few Americans know about the heroin maintenance programs that exist in half a dozen European countries, whereby people who get addicted to illegal street heroin can get a legal prescription for pharmaceutical grade heroin, and that their lives improve as a result. We’re constantly trying to get that information out in our public education, media appearances, and testimony before state legislatures.

BPR: Do you think the movement to legalize other drugs, like LSD, will follow a similar path to marijuana? Will the DPA be advocating for something like medical acid at one point before advocating for its recreational use?

EN:  I think that psychedelics are the most likely class of drugs to be legalized next, but the approach will be very different than with marijuana. For marijuana, the ballot initiative process has been a pivotal way of moving forward and the state legislative process has followed. I think the legalization of psychedelics will occur through a revised regulatory process. Last year the New Zealand parliament enacted a law allowing producers of new synthetic drugs to undergo a legal regulatory process similar to FDA review. Whether or not their drugs were approved for legal production and sale depended on the extent to which they demonstrated their relative margins of safety. That was a major breakthrough. That’s the process whereby we’ll see an opening [in the United States]. Whether that ultimately requires some Congressional action, I’m not sure. It may.

BPR: Recreational marijuana use was recently legalized in Washington and Colorado. Where do you see the movement progressing from here?

EN: We plan to focus on passing marijuana legalization initiatives in Oregon, Florida and Alaska, getting decriminalization and medical marijuana legalization bills out of committee in a growing number of state legislatures, and making sure Colorado and Washington continue to roll out effectively. In DC we’ve been working very closely with the city council to pass what will likely be the most expansive marijuana decriminalization bill ever. All of this is proceeding more rapidly than any of us imagined it would just a few years ago. The real challenge for me and for Drug Policy Alliance is to keep the ball moving down the field.

BPR: President Obama has not strictly enforced federal drug law where it conflicts with state drug law. How do you reconcile the disparate views of localities, states, and the federal government in coming up with a streamlined drug policy?

EN: Well ultimately Congress needs to act. But given that Congress has been pathetically incapable of doing the right thing with respect of marijuana policy, I have to hand it to the Obama administration. What they’ve done in the past six months has been historic. Their efforts to allow Colorado and Washington to proceed responsibly with legally regulating and taxing marijuana – while avoiding a head on confrontation with federal law – have been remarkably constructive. The memorandums issued by the justice department – which gave Colorado and Washington a qualified green light to implement their initiatives – and the treasury department – which created space for federally regulated banks to do business with the marijuana industry – were really bold steps forward.