Against the Drug War with Ethan Nadelmann

By Zachary Siegel 12/12/14

The Fix Q&A with Ethan Nadelmann—founder of the Drug Policy Alliance—on activism, policy and that TED talk.


I’ll just come right out and say it. I dislike about 97% of the TED Talks I’ve ever heard. All the speakers are "electrifying" and "uplifting." Their unwavering enthusiasm, relentless optimism, hopelessly individualistic "epiphimonies" all begin to sound the same: "I’ve got ideas! Let’s (with your money) materialize my idea. I’ve got a goddamned microphone headset on." The audience tunes in, laughs when they’re supposed to, and hopes for some kind of spiritual onslaught, that just maybe, by talking about ideas, everything will be okay. 

Racism permeates U.S. drug policy, but not just U.S. drug policy; you see it in other countries as well. 

But then there's the remaining 3% of TED Talks, where, instead of being bombarded by someone’s "brilliant" and "clever" idea, I am implicated, called out, and hijacked, taken from the world which I inhabit, the one I thought I knew so well. Ethan Nadelmann’s talk, Why We Need to End the War on Drugs, did precisely that. It was successful for a number of other reasons, and those reasons probably have something to do with the fact that his father was a rabbi and that he’s easily the most learned voice in drug policy today. 

Below is a talk with Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, where we discuss his career as an academic turned activist, drug policy and racism, our criminalizing tendencies, and how to get people on board with sensible, harm-reduction policy. Because in America, we’re a bunch of (not so?) covert, moralizing Puritans when it comes to drugs. 

For the full Nadelmann-effect, watch his talk then read his thoughts below. 

When Rolling Stone covered you there was a section about your father, who was a rabbi. You said that, "He had a real talent to engage the most intellectually-sophisticated, without talking over the heads of people who were the least sophisticated." I felt like your TED Talk was on par with a rabbi’s sermon. Who or what else inspired you to go down the road you did? 

My dad and his being a rabbi, the nature of the way he was a rabbi, was certainly an influence, but there were two other influences: one was my mom, who became a biostatistician, and the other was my uncle, who was a professor. So, I had these three main influences.

But clearly, growing up and seeing my dad speak hundreds and hundreds of times, I assimilated that and his style of speaking. He never wrote a speech in his life and the TED Talk was the first speech I ever wrote in my life, literally. First talk I ever wrote. First talk I ever memorized in my life. One of the things I was most nervous about TED was that I had never memorized anything in the English language. I don’t know the lyrics to any song. I never memorized a poem. I’ve never been in a play. The only thing I’ve ever memorized aside from pages of Hebrew prayers as a kid—when I never knew what they meant—were pages of music. I played piano and saxophone as a kid. 

I think it was only subconsciously at first—it eventually became conscious—that what drew me into drug policy reform was that this issue was personal, ideological, and political for me. It was personal in the sense that I started smoking pot when I was 18 and I enjoyed it and it wasn’t a problem. And I also found that hallucinogens were playing a positive and powerful role in my life and so it was personal in that my friends and I were being criminalized. It was also ideological in the sense that my politics are essentially, what might be called, social justice libertarian, in that I care about personal freedom and liberty but that I also care about a compassionate society. It was political in the sense that the issue was emerging as a real political struggle. It was in those ways that I sort of found my calling, almost by happenstance. I could not have predicted that having chosen to work on this issue in 1983, that in the beginning of 1986 it would become this hysterical thing in the national media for almost four years, from ’86 to ’90. 

You were an undergrad in the ‘70s, who were your favorite thinkers during that time and do they still influence your thoughts today? 

On the issue of drugs, there were two books that really had a significant impact on me. One was the Andrew Weil’s book, The Natural Mind, about why people use drugs. The second book that really made an impact on me was Stanton Peele’s book, The Meaning of Addiction, which I read in ’86. 

My experience with books, whether I was reading John Stuart Mill, or Peele or Wyle, is that, it’s not like you read a book and it flips you around, it’s more like, you start reading a book and you’re saying, "I was thinking that…and oh my, they came up with the same formulation I’ve been using." And then you see that the author took it beyond where your own thinking had gone. 

But the thing that had the biggest impact on me of all was my identity as a Jew and my consciousness of Jewish history. My father had been born in Berlin in 1928 and he fled in 1939. And his father, whom he barely knew, had won the Iron Cross for Germany in World War I and then was picked up in Paris and killed in Auschwitz. 

From a young age were you conscious of your religious and cultural history? Has this served as a moral compass for you in your fight for reform?

By the age of 8, I decided I wanted to be a history professor when I grew up. How many 8-year-olds want to do that? But I stuck with that. I became a professor of political science with a historical orientation. I was always drawn towards both American and Jewish history. That consciousness around Jewish history, the oppression, stigma, prejudice, and intolerance for difference, really had a huge impact on me. Part of what drew me to the drug issue was that on some level, what was playing out with the drug war in America was remarkably similar to what had played out against Jews, but also to gays, blacks, other minorities, and women. 

Two or three years ago I gave a speech at the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference to a few hundred African-American ministers, that’s the speech where Michelle Alexander interviewed Neil Franklin and myself, and that’s where I really speak to those parallels. 

In your TED Talk, you say that your motivation is the “shame at living in an otherwise great nation that has less than 5% of the world’s population but almost 25% of the world’s incarcerated population.” Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow, says, “Nothing has contributed more to the systemic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs.” Do you agree with her thesis, that there is a discursive, systematically racist drug policy being implemented in America today? 

Michelle and I agree on roughly 90% or more of the analysis. I’m coming primarily through a drug-policy reform lens, which is infused with racial justice and injustice. She is coming at it from a racial-justice lens, which is infused with drug policy reform. And if you look at her writing and speaking since she came out with the book, what you see is Michelle becoming increasingly sophisticated in her advocacy on drug policy and reform. She is now boldly calling for major reform, for the decriminalization of marijuana, and legalization in other areas. 

I think that racism permeates U.S. drug policy, but not just U.S. drug policy; you see it in other countries as well. When you look at the implementation of these laws, and then when you look at the impact of these laws, you’ll see that it is all racially-disproportionate and is sometimes gross in remarkable ways. 

The other thing is the nature of racism. It is one thing to say that these policies are driven with a very conscious, racist mindset, and when you look at the origin of the laws, it’s very clearly racist. And of course, it is not just race and ethnicity; it intersects with class because it is about poor people and their drugs as well. But the race piece is pivotal and a dominant piece of it. But I think that when you look at the implementation of it, that begins to be less about conscious racism and more about the subtle and subconscious ways in which race plays out in this. 

On the one hand, if you look at the ways in which policing is disproportionately targeted in poor communities of color, that is partially because there is higher levels of criminal activity playing out in the streets, rather than behind closed doors. So there is a legitimate public safety reason for targeting there. But on the other hand, the fact is that there is a greater aggressiveness of policing in those communities. Young men of color are less likely to know their rights, they are less likely to come from families that can call up the D.A. or the judge or police chief and say, "What are you doing to my kid?" They are less likely to have parents who can pay a criminal defense lawyer to resolve the situation. They are less likely to talk back to a police officer and say, "No sir, you cannot look in my pockets." In all those ways, they are aggressively targeted. 

What I also liked about Alexander’s book was that she called out the African-American establishment for their passivity on these issues. Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there was bipartisan support for the drug war, including African Americans like Rev. Jesse Jackson and Congressman Charlie Rangel, who were the two principal champions for the drug war during that time. We still have that problem with African-American clergy, especially in the South, basically supporting the drug war. Those elements, as well, play in. 

In your TED Talk, one of my favorite lines is that we suffer from a “domestic psychosis” when it comes to thinking about drugs in America. How do we get people to see these issues through both critical and historical lenses? 

I don’t think there is one way to do that. I think trying to engage people historically, unless they’re coming from a historical consciousness, is difficult. I think that one reason Michelle Alexander’s book has had such a tremendous impact was that she did tap into that historical narrative: slavery to Jim Crow to The New Jim Crow. She connected the war on drugs to the history of oppression of African Americans in the United States. I think that turned out to be a very powerful vehicle for communicating the message about the evils of the drug war. 

But one thing I am very curious about is this paradox: in 2010, California tried to legalize marijuana with Prop. 19 and the group that turned out to be the most opposed than any other to the legalization of marijuana were older, Latino seniors in Southern California. Just overwhelmingly against it. If you look at the origin of marijuana laws in the United States, it’s all about prejudices against Mexican Americans and Mexican migrants in the West and Southwest from 1913 to 1930, until you get the Federal Tax Act. So we see a disconnect there. 

We’re gearing up now for the 2016 ballot initiative in California. I’m awfully curious to see whether or not a greater awareness of the historically-racist origin of the marijuana laws in California will have any impact on Latino sentiment. I don’t know. I don’t know if it will. 

That’d be an interesting approach, at least one that I have not really seen before. Do you get the feeling that the younger generation is also out of touch with both the racist origin of drug laws and the failures of prohibition? 

If you look to alcohol, the analogy to alcohol prohibition resonates in America. I was worried about that resonance beginning to fade but then with Boardwalk Empire and other things emerging into the public consciousness again, there is a sense in which the entertainment media, by sort of revisiting alcohol prohibition, helped freshen up a new generation of Americans' consciousness. That analogy looms fairly large, I think, with most people in your generation. I mean, they have at least some awareness that there was a history of alcohol prohibition in the U.S., which generated crime and Al Capone and it didn’t work. So we try to tap into that. 

I think with respect to coming up with other policies on heroin or cocaine or methamphetamine, where we are not particularly talking about full legalization, but we’re talking about decriminalization, harm reduction, and a public health approach, I think that is probably going to be done in a largely ahistorical way. It’ll be much more about responsible public health and public safety policy.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.