How Far Can Ethan Nadelmann Push America’s Drug Laws?

By Will Godfrey 06/30/13

The leader of the Drug Policy Alliance speaks with The Fix about legalizing marijuana, harm reduction and the 12 Steps, psychedelic revelations and decriminalizing all drug possession.

Dr. Nadelmann means it. Photo via

Maybe a little bit of rock star has rubbed off on Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, after his recent profile in Rolling Stone. Due to address a conference at NYU, where, the program promises, he will “take us around the world in 20 minutes,” Nadelmann shows up with seconds to spare, clutching a Coke Zero and a stick of gum. He hits the rostrum without breaking stride and delivers, notes-free, an adrenaline-pumped rundown of the harms of drug prohibition and the emergence of alternatives in Latin America, Europe and the US that has the respectful crowd of social work educators whooping in appreciation.

Nadelmann, 56, has been a drug policy reform activist for decades, from his teaching and research at Princeton in the ‘80s and early ‘90s to his founding in 1994 of the Lindesmith Center—a think tank funded by George Soros, which Nadelman merged with another group to form the Drug Policy Alliance in 2000. He’s widely considered the most influential advocate in this field, and his efforts bore their most spectacular fruit to-date last November, when Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana.

"The most pernicious and powerful opponents we have are the DAs. Their bloated power in American society is the single most dynamic element driving the drug war today."

Pot hogs headlines, but Nadelmann stresses that most DPA efforts focus elsewhere. Pushing harm reduction in the broadest sense—everything from Good Samaritan laws to combat overdose, needle exchange and naloxone distribution to ending mandatory minimum drug sentences and ultimately drug decriminalization—is their overarching theme. In a later session at the NYU conference, Nadelmann details how harm reduction boosts public health and breaks stigma; he wraps up with a glowing endorsement of heroin maintenance programs.  

In person Nadelmann, who has a PhD in political science from Harvard, a master’s in international relations from the London School of Economics and a New Yawk accent, combines an engaging passion for his subject with a professorial grasp of it, frequently citing studies to support his points. Later on, as we finish our interview on a bench in Washington Square Park, whiffs of second-hand marijuana smoke drift by, forestalling any temptation to stray off-topic.

A ballot initiative, you say, is what you do when you think people are already on your side. But as you waited for the Colorado and Washington results to come in last November, how confident were you really, given that you were trying to do something unprecedented?  

I did not think, just a few months in advance, that we would win both. Certainly not by those margins, where we got roughly 55% of the vote. It was only in the final week that we began to see polling and early voting in these states—in Colorado, we were deeply involved in the drafting and then in the ground game; in Washington, we were slightly involved in the drafting but deeply involved in the fundraising—and to sense that we were ahead. Even then, I didn’t quite believe it.

You know, we had a little wave of momentum in the late ‘90s, and then with Bush/Cheney and 9/11, especially, we got pushed back. Now this acceleration of support for legalizing marijuana has caught me, and almost everybody else, by surprise.

Where in the US do you think we’ll next see marijuana legalized?

I’m wondering whether Oregon has a shot to move forward in 2014; there the legislature can put an initiative on the ballot, so I think there’s a chance. There’s some possibility around Alaska in 2014. I’m curious about Washington, DC, and whether the city council, where views have really evolved, might be willing to do something. California, we’re looking at 2016. And states like Arizona or Missouri might pop through.  

Rolling Stone calls you "The Real Drug Czar.” What’s your assessment of Gil Kerlikowske and the Obama administration?  

I was hopeful with Gil Kerlikowske. He had been the police chief of Seattle, and they have Hempfest. He had gone to Vancouver, looked inside a safe-injection site and written a fair-minded memo. I met him as soon as he was appointed, and he was very friendly. But now on the marijuana issue he appears to be mimicking the verbiage of his predecessors. It’s almost like he was captured by the people who pursue this absurd line of thinking. In that respect, it’s a good sign that responsibility for marijuana policy appears to have been shifted to the justice department, which has to pursue a much more pragmatic policy.  

I was pleasantly surprised during the first 18 months of Obama’s administration. He made three commitments when he was running for president. One was that he would pull back on federal enforcement on medical marijuana in the states that had made it legal. The second was that he would approve federal funding for needle exchange programs. And the third was that he would push to roll back the mandatory minimum crack penalties. You know that 100-to-one issue? [the former sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine]  

Now it’s “only” 18-to-one, right?  

Yeah. He made good on all three commitments. On medical marijuana, they put out the Ogden Memo in ‘09, which was cautious, but emboldened some of the state governments. On needle exchange, they did not lead, but he did approve it. [Congress reinstated the federal funding ban in 2011.] And on the crack/powder issue, they actually did lead, and pushed on one-to-one.

Unfortunately, they kind of peaked. Once the Republicans took over the House, it made it much more difficult, having some of the most reactionary Republicans in charge of these committees, so I can only blame the Obama administration so far.  

Kerlikowske, after being very leery of the overdose issue, is now providing some leadership on that. But they’re using our rhetoric about a public health approach, about reducing incarceration, and the budgets, the policies, don’t match the rhetoric. The stigmas associated with addiction; the criminalization of pregnant women who test positive for drugs; legislation to roll back further mandatory minimums—he’s just not present on that stuff. I see him trying to claim the mantle of public health. But you can’t do that if you’re not willing to talk about the kinds of innovations we see in Europe, if you continually insist on the criminalization of drug possession.  

You don't just preach to the choir like at NYU today; you go and speak to people who oppose your goals. Where have you experienced the most hostility?  

The people most hostile to my goals typically don't invite me to speak—especially in the law enforcement world. Questioning that approach raises existential issues for them. When you're spending your life enforcing these laws and you want to go home at night and look your kid in the eye and say, “Daddy's doing good,” to have to step back and say, “Maybe Daddy's job is no different than the prohibition agents during the alcohol Prohibition"—it's a hard thing. I’m sensitive to that.  

The tragedy is the so-called "blue wall of silence." I mean, this is a powerful issue right now. I'm one of the leaders of this movement. You'd think these guys would want to hear it from the horse's mouth. I think a lot of them are afraid that if they invited me to speak, their members might be persuaded. The only silver lining on perceiving their fear of debate is that it lets me know how incredibly vulnerable they feel about what they're trying to defend. They know deep down—the smarter ones—that they can't win, that there's something flawed in their way of thinking.  

Who do you see as your most formidable opponents?  

The most pernicious and powerful opponents we have are the prosecutors and the DAs. Where we’re trying to get a Good Samaritan law passed, trying to get needle exchange laws through, expand access to methadone, they’re the ones standing in the way. Their bloated power in American society and the extent to which they are unaccountable, and only care about their own self-empowerment—that is the single most dynamic element driving the drug war today. It’s not about money. This is about power. The power to run for higher office. The power in squeezing some poor guy arrested for drug possession or low-level selling into making a deal and avoiding a massive sentence.  

I am continually stunned by the lack of humanity and the disrespect for science and public health that I see in that world. It is pathetic and they need to be held accountable. When DAs engage in behavior that results in the deaths of large numbers of people, they are never sanctioned. They deserve to be. The only saving grace is the growing number of people in that world who are beginning to break off: David Soares, the DA of Albany County, and some others.  

Where around the world have you been most inspired by drug policy reforms?  

My first trip to Switzerland was 1992, and they just had approved proceeding with the heroin maintenance thing. I used to go the Netherlands in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, to see what they were doing. I went to Portugal more recently, and to Vancouver—as an advisor, as well as to learn and ally with them. The European approach has always been a major inspiration. When I created the Lindesmith Center in ’94, one of the ways I defined our mission was to educate Americans about the lessons and benefits of foreign approaches.  

You’ve criticized America’s “pig-headedness” against harm reduction approaches that work elsewhere. Has the relative dominance of the abstinence-based 12-step movement in the US been part of the reason that harm reduction has been less welcome here?  

I don’t have a simple answer. We were one of the only countries in the western world to prohibit alcohol. That attitude, the abstinence-only approach, preceded AA. Our instinctive reliance on criminalization is not inherent to AA. That really grew up in an American frame: Nixon’s war on drugs, the way race issues played out in this country, the private prison industry.  

The 12-step model has been problematic, I think, in two areas. The first is the way the criminal justice system and the for-profit drug treatment industry tried to capitalize. When you marry the 12-step abstinence-only approach with a criminal justice approach, when falling off the wagon has a criminal sanction attached, you can’t just take one step at a time, and it’s awfully hard to build peer groups based on trust. All these for-profit 28-day programs—many ended up doing relatively little good, at a tremendous cost.  

Where the 12-step thing has the most to own up to is its role in impeding harm reduction interventions to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS. Why was it that Australia and England and the Netherlands were able to stop the spread, and keep the number for injecting drug users under 5-10%, and the US was not? It’s that notion—that abstinence is the only permissible approach, that we are not going to “enable” a junkie by giving him a clean needle. There has to be a kind of owning up to that role in hundreds of thousands of people dying unnecessarily, even as people in recovery play a greater and greater role in drug policy reform.  

But there can be a natural fit between 12-step recovery and your goals?  

Yes. The 12 Steps and harm reduction share some things: The notion of one step at a time, one day at a time; the importance of peer groups; the important role that dignity plays. This is why I admire Howard Josepher—he has both harm reduction and recovery programs. Some of the most significant leaders of the harm reduction movement are in 12-step programs. They say, “I have hit a point where I realize I cannot drink or use drugs; the 12-step approach worked for me,” but they've also seen many people where it did not work. They realized they needed a fallback strategy, and therefore see 12-step and harm reduction as complementary. On my board, on my staff, in the drug policy reform movement, one of the most dynamic and fast-growing elements is people in recovery.  

Some feel they can’t support decriminalization or legalization because of awful personal experiences with drugs. What would you say to that?  

Firstly, marijuana prohibition in the US has almost entirely failed to make marijuana less available to young people. There are three national surveys in which young people say it's easier to buy marijuana than alcohol. For anybody who is in recovery and used marijuana at some point, the prohibition laws failed to make it unavailable to them. What makes them think it's going to be any better in the future, to persist with this policy?  

The experience of the Netherlands is that the percentage of young people who use cannabis and then go on to try other drugs is less than in the US. The Dutch, I think reasonably, explain that as being a result of having separated the cannabis market from other drug markets. Drug dealers in the Netherlands are less likely to carry marijuana than other drugs, whereas in the US, they're more likely to carry marijuana and other substances. Much of what accounts for the gateway theory is having a supply that sells multiple substances.    

What about the decriminalization of other drugs?  

Drug addiction can be a terrible thing—but so can arrest and incarceration. We have to focus on reducing both the risks and harms of addiction and the risks and harms of incarceration.

With respect to the decriminalization of all drug possession, which we sometimes call the “Portugal model”—they did not eliminate criminal sanctions but they basically stopped putting anybody who was in possession in jail, or penalizing them through the criminal justice system. If you look at the evidence from Portugal, drug use went a little up in some groups and down in some others, but basically remained constant. But HIV, Hep C, drug arrests, criminality, all the negative consequences of drug use and addiction went down. The decriminalization of drug possession appears to have no impact on the number of people who use drugs. What it does do is remove obstacles to treating addiction as a health issue, reduce arrests, reduce the money spent on criminal justice.

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Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.