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.

For those “hard drugs,” what kind of tactics will be needed to get people on board with those public health policies? Will you rely more heavily on data driven or empirical arguments? 

The science and data are already there. There is almost no more debate on this. It all works. If you look at how progress was made outside the U.S. on these issues, people in the public health agencies typically drove it. Sometimes it was driven by the courts—in South America and Europe— finding that there was a constitutional basis for striking down discrimination against people based upon which drug they used. 

I think that the principal challenge is going to be the mobilization of people. On the issue of adopting a harm-reduction, public health driven policy with respect to drugs, I think that’s not going to be done by and large with ballot initiatives. It’s also not going to be as much driven by shock the conscience or even the racial injustice piece. I think our model will be what happened in Europe during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Something called the European Cities on Drug Policy (ECDP), where they came together and supported something called the Frankfurt Resolution on Drug Policy. That idea of identifying leaders in public health who are committed to that vision, I think that is going to be the key element in that. 

What role are people in recovery going to have to play in order to push addiction and drug use into a public health sphere and out of the criminal sphere?   

Within the recovery movement now, there is a kind of moral decision that translates into a policy decision, which people in the recovery movement are increasingly going to be obliged to come to grips with: Are they going to end up continuing to ally with the coerced treatment of drug court? The model is "let’s take the 12-step model but attach criminal justice backed sanctions to it…let’s attach drug-testing to it." I would regard this as the perversion of 12-step principles, which is also what’s dominated American drug treatment for the last few decades. Or, is the recovery movement going to continue to grow in their alliance with drug policy reform and the harm reduction movement, which is about saying that people in recovery—whatever their journey may be—will reject whatever role criminalization and the criminal justice system played in it. 

For people who are struggling with addiction, there is a madness in saying that when you manifest the symptoms of your quote unquote disease, that we’re going to take away your freedom. My hope, and what DPA wants, is that as the recovery movement plays an ever-growing role in the drug policy reform movement, that there be an infusion of thinking and consciousness, and that this moral center about drug policy reform is going to continue to grow. 

So what would you say to someone in recovery who has just gone through hell kicking heroin? Who may say, all the heroin and all the dealers need to be extinguished from society, which is essentially demonizing, criminalizing, anti-harm-reduction?  

I have that talk all the time and the first thing I ask is—why do you have any reason to believe that we can get rid of heroin now, after opiates, in one form or another, have been around for millennia? The second thing I ask is, in what ways did the criminalization of heroin play a constructive role in your life? If you’ve just recovered from your heroin addiction, how much time did you spend in jail? In what way did the criminalization prevent you from becoming a heroin addict? In what ways does having to pay ten times as much, or getting it from the criminal market, or use it in a hidden way, how did all that help? 

The only people who have an argument with me are the people who say, "Hey, being sent to prison was the only thing that saved my life," But what we also have reason to believe is that for a far greater number of people who got caught up in drug addiction, going through the criminal justice system (e.g., jail and prison) harmed them much more than it helped them. 

After my TED Talk, during the Q&A with Chris Anderson, I said that when I talk with the growing number of people who have lost a sibling or child to an overdose, 10 years ago they may have said line up all the drug dealers and shoot ‘em. But now more and more of them are supporting DPA and basically saying, obviously criminalization did nothing or it may have even aided in the cause of death of my loved one. 

And there are parents who are dealing with two children who are drug addicts. Why does the alcoholic, then, get treated fundamentally different from the heroin addict? Even though any physician will tell you that the alcohol was probably more devastating to the human body and behavior than heroin, at least a pure form of heroin. 

At TED, you spoke to how harsh drug policies are masqueraded as “one great big child protection act.” Have you seen the meth ads? With the time warp of a young adult turning into some kind of blistered, vampiric fiend? Are these ads ineffective at getting teens to not do meth, but more effective at triggering this fear around one’s child potentially turning into a fiend? 

The Drug Czar’s office and NIDA, when you look at how much of an investment these ads are, one can see the ways in which they’ve essentially become propagandist. They are always trying to figure out the latest argument they can use to freak out parents. First, it was the Gateway Theory and now it is the adolescent brain theory. In each one of these they’re basically embedding an ounce of truth into a pound of bullshit. 

Meanwhile, they are not putting out and acknowledging the contrary evidence. They are very much serving as a propaganda agency on this sort of stuff. If you look at the ads in the late '80s and early '90s, once again it is playing on all these fears: your brain on drugs and those fried egg commercials. So the meth ads become the manifestation of the fried egg. These things sometimes work for a brief period of time until they end up being mocked and made fun of for discrediting the more honest messages one might put forward. 

The societies you find that are more successful in dealing with issues in drug abuse and adolescent drug abuse, don’t rely on that sort of advertisement. When you look at the Netherlands, or other countries which have relatively lower rates of drug use and abuse, they tend to embed their message in what it means to lead a healthy life, a healthy adolescence, rather than these kind of shock the conscience tactics that American advertising agencies rely on.  

I think it is kind of funny—and over the years I’ve come to appreciate how many of those ads were made by people working in ad agencies, who were doing this because either their agency was making money from it or were being strong armed or incentivized by the government to the partnership—how many of the same people making those ads go home and smoke a joint after work? The hypocrisy of this stuff.  

I’m 25, and though I cannot speak for everyone my age, it seems that more and more people from my generation are ready to get behind some sensible drug policy. What would you say to a young man or woman today as to how to get involved in drug policy reform? To make some much needed changes? 

The first thing I’ll say, Zach, is as you grow older, stick to your principles. Unfortunately, one of the most common features of becoming a parent is hypocrisy. So you’re 25, you’re 30, you’re thinking in ways that are more science-based. But then when you have kids your natural protective instinct takes over and the rational brain shuts down. Therefore, keep the principles and the rational brain that exists right now and don’t drop this stuff. Don’t adopt the hypocrisies of parents. That’s the first and most important message, because if you look at what happened in the late '70s, 50% of college freshman wanted to legalize marijuana. Ten years later, it was down to 16%. There was a generation that was swept up in a more conservative approach. 

People talk about the, "Oh, that was when I was young and I wised up." But on the drug issue, what you see is when you were young you were wiser and when you got older you dumbed down, or not just dumbed down, just got dumb! 

The second thing I’ll say is that in terms of becoming an effective advocate, the most important thing is really learning. It’s knowing, it’s reading, read and read and read and listen and listen and listen. Get deeply informed in this. Another thing is, understanding that saying what you think is not synonymous with effective advocacy. The advocates who just say, "I want to proclaim to the world what I think and what I believe," can sometimes backfire as much as it can help. I think it is understanding that one has to look at the best ways to communicate what you know and what you believe. 

The third thing is that old slogan: think global, act local. The opportunities to have an impact so often happen where one lives. Those can take all sorts of forms like creating or joining organizations that are fighting for this. If one is going to join a Liberal or a Democratic or Republican or Libertarian organization, push for drug reform to get on the agenda. It means getting involved politically, running for low-level offices at city government so that one can become an advocate for these things. It means calling talk radio or writing letters to the editor of newspapers or media outlets. It means finding the most effective ways to persuade your parents or the older generation to come along on this argument. It means, if you are in fact a drug consumer, be a responsible drug consumer, and model that behavior. It means being willing to take some risks with coming out as a drug consumer, the same way that gay people had to take certain risks coming out about their identity. It means that if you work in a business where they drug test without cause, it means beginning to find a way to raise that as an issue and to challenge that. It also means that often times somebody wants to go out and create their own organization, but one problem for every movement is too many chiefs and not enough Indians. So it means being willing to join organizations to empower them and grow into leadership roles. 

And if somebody has got a huge amount to offer, and they are incredibly talented and brilliant and have a fantastic work ethic, then they can apply for a job at the Drug Policy Alliance.

Zachary Siegel is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about whether AA is at fault for the murder of one it's members. (The answer was no.) Follow him on twitter.

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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.