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DEA vs. DPA in Legal Pot Debate

Former DEA chief Asa Hutchinson squares off against Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance in Colorado.

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Former DEA administrator Asa Hutchinson
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By Victoria Kim

07/01/13

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A committed debate on marijuana legalization [full video below] took place at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado earlier today. Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann—whose interview with The Fix was also published today—was pitted against ex-DEA administrator Asa Hutchinson. The pair have faced off in the past, but this time they were doing so in one of the two states that legalized pot last November. Moderator James Bennet, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic (the event's co-hosts) started with a brief overview of US marijuana policy—from the impact of Mexican immigration preceding the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, to recent polling that shows 52% of the US population in favors of pot legalization.

Hutchinson argued for keeping weed illegal while "adjusting policies from lessons learned in past decades," in order, for example, to reduce the racial disparities of law enforcement. "That's an example of things we need to fix and do better and learn from," he said. Nadelmann, favoring legalization, insisted that criminal justice should not be the main instrument of drug control policy. "You can put the health people [like the] Surgeon General in charge, rather than a military general or a police chief," he said. "You can treat these drugs primarily as health issues, where law enforcement plays a backup role rather than a frontal role." 

Teen health was a recurring theme, with Hutchinson expressing concern that legalization would increase marijuana use among this age group. Nadelmann responded by citing surveys in which young people said they find it easier to buy marijuana than alcohol. "I don't think [teens are] the group where [pot use] is gonna go up. If anything, it will take away the forbidden fruit attraction," he said. He thinks pot use is more likely to rise among the over-forties. "It's going to be older people going, 'It helps me sleep'...or 'I prefer it to having a drink,' or to the pharmaceuticals my doctor's giving me." He added that most of this age category are less "prone to being addicted or using it in a problematic way."

Hutchinson, who supports more funding for addiction treatment, hailed drug courts as an effective way to get people the treatment they need—stating that being arrested is what compels addicts to get treatment "in 90% of the cases." He described attending drug court graduation ceremonies, and seeing graduates hug their arresting officers, thanking them for "putting them on the right path." Nadelmann, of course, sees it differently. "I think that arresting 750,000 people a year for marijuana possession is a terrible thing to do," he said. "Whatever risks there are to making marijuana legal are less than the risks and harms of continuing with failed prohibition policy."

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