How Far Can Ethan Nadelmann Push America’s Drug Laws? - Page 2

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

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You’re open about your own drug use: You’re a longstanding but occasional marijuana user; you’ve used cocaine but aren't a fan. You seem much more enthusiastic about psychedelics. What did you mean when you told Rolling Stone that psychedelics are wasted on the young?  

Oftentimes when you talk to younger people who've done psychedelics, it's all about the bright lights and colors and the funny sensations—and that's fine. Most of them do it and it's fun; maybe they learn something from it, some of them get hurt by doing it stupidly. I've not been a frequent psychedelics user. I've tried a variety of them. I think it's a good thing to do once a year, so long as one doesn't have issues with mental health.  

Why do you think it's a good thing to do once a year?  

Psychedelics are a powerful and effective way of asking deeper questions about one's life. I grew up the son of a rabbi but I'm not an advocate for organized religion—but there's a spiritual element to this. There are traditions of prayer and fasting and chanting. Other people do it through psychological counseling. I think that continuing to challenge oneself becomes more difficult as one gets older. Trying to stir up the emotional sediment that one acquires is a good thing.  

My occasional use of psilocybin mushrooms—I've derived not just wonderful experiences, and occasionally gone to some dark places. But I also had some intellectual and emotional insights that I value decades afterwards. Having once done it in the context of the Santo Daime ceremony—you know, the Brazilian ayahuasca-based church—people who had been through serious trauma, violence, loss, it was about coming to grips with that. The recent research, done in government-funded studies with very rigorous research models, shows profound benefits when psychedelics are done in a responsible way.  

You have a 24-year-old daughter; what have you told her about drugs?  

The thing I’ve always stressed with my daughter was to keep the bottom line focused on safety. I don’t have an ideological viewpoint vis-à-vis adolescents and drugs. I’m not a proponent of drug use; I’m perfectly happy with people who want to be what they regard as entirely sober or straight. My view to marijuana and other drugs was similar to my view about alcohol, which is, if you’re going to do it, do it responsibly. I’d rather you wait till you got older; take care.  

Like many people my age, I was less concerned about marijuana being used occasionally in late adolescence, but radically opposed to cigarettes...I hate cigarettes. My dad died at the age of 58 and his cigarette addiction may well have played a role. I think that adolescents that choose to use cigarettes in the face of all the evidence, that’s an indication that they’re willing to take risks that I think are not acceptable. Whereas young people who choose to drink occasionally, or to smoke marijuana—or even, depending on the age, do something like use MDMA—are actually being much more intelligent about the relative risks.  

"We need to accept that there is going to be a small percentage of people who are determined to get their drug of choice. Heroin, cocaine, whatever. And for those people, we need to find a way to allow them legal access to the substance they want."

How could better policies have reduced the huge US toll from Rx opioid overdoses?  

One of my frustrations is that DPA is now devoting as much staff time and almost as many resources to overdose prevention as to marijuana reform, but all the media attention focuses on marijuana. We are playing a role of national leadership in passing Good Samaritan laws. We’ve led efforts in New York, California, New Mexico, Colorado and been deeply involved in Vermont and a host of other states. In New Jersey, we got that through and Governor Christie vetoed it—then we came back, mobilized parents and city councils and finally got Christie to realize he made a mistake. It’s a personal passion—probably more of my staff at DPA are passionate on the naloxone issue than on marijuana.  

The shame is, the knee-jerk response, at least until recently, is: Crack down—crack down on pill mills, crack down on doctors. So much focus is on the supply side, in the absence of any significant evidence that that’s the most important place to focus. Meanwhile, you have this in-your-face evidence that naloxone—making it liberally available, making people aware of it—saves lives.

The DPA is a broad church, ranging from all-out libertarians to doubtful drug warriors, and you say you don’t need to fight over what the ultimate objectives are...  

There’s all sorts. People who want to roll back the drug war, get rid of mandatory minimums, harm reduction focus, decriminalization of possession—there’s still so much work to be done to get to that point that the internal disputes over what the ultimate policy should be are really just intellectual ones.  

Does that mean you can’t tell me what you want the ultimate goal to be?  

I’m somewhat bounded in terms of representing DPA. But on the marijuana issue, I’m not fighting for the Marlborization or Budweiseration of marijuana. My focus is very much to legislate a responsible public health approach.  

The DPA website talks about giving people sovereignty over their own bodies. Is there any way to do that without legalizing all drugs?  

There’s a fundamental distinction between saying we’re no longer going to criminalize people, and saying we are going to legalize the availability. We don’t have a position for or against the broader legalization of drugs other than cannabis. And that split between people who favor broader legalization and those who favor a more public health, harm reduction approach is in the DNA of Drug Policy Alliance. 

Might it be argued that the concept of decriminalized drugs—as opposed to legalized—is a fudge? You won’t be prosecuted for drug use, but in order to obtain those drugs, you’ll still have to employ the services of someone who is breaking the law?  

You can call it fudge, or you can call it incremental steps! Thinking in politically realistic terms: People ask, Is there a slippery slope from marijuana legalization to the legalization of other drugs? The answer seems pretty clearly, No—whether you like it or not. There’s two pieces of evidence: One is the Netherlands, where you’ve had majority or close to majority support for the legal regulation of cannabis for a long time, but you don’t see support for legalizing other drugs. The second is the American opinion polls. You see the rapid increase in support for legalizing marijuana, but when you ask people about legalizing other drugs, it hovers in that 10-15% level.  

But those who advocate outright for legalization serve very important roles. The government, the drug czars, have an interest in conflating the harms of drugs and the harms of prohibitionist policies. One service of legalization advocacy is to put right up front: Here are the harms that flow from treating this as an illegal market—the crime, the corruption, the black market, the incarceration and human rights violations, the environmental harms of spraying crops in Latin America, even the fact that drugs are much more dangerous, adulterated, unregulated.  

Another value of legalization advocacy is that it requires people to think hard about what is it they’re really afraid of. That’s a hard question. To what extent are our fears real, and to what extent are they phantoms? Asking people what it is they fear is also about highlighting how we see some of these drugs—heroin, cocaine, meth—as so much more dangerous than alcohol and cigarettes...

Like the somewhat spurious distinction between “hard” and “soft” drugs.  

Exactly. Those things don’t conform much with the available scientific evidence or the consensus conclusions of nationally appointed commissions of experts. The legalization advocacy is about a provocation to think afresh, instead of some belief that we’re all going to be selling crack cocaine in the stores the way we do Marlboro today. Some people advocate that; libertarians will. DPA does not—it’s about getting people to think hard about that, and to challenge their assumptions.  

You often sound as if you’re primarily a pragmatist, looking to do what helps, rather than basing what you do primarily on ideology. Is that fair?  

Yes and no. My mission, and that of my organization, is to reduce the harms of drugs—death, disease, crime, suffering—and to reduce the harms of our prohibitionist policies. The optimal drug control policy is the one which most effectively balances those two objectives. So in that sense, it’s very pragmatic. Most DPA resources are devoted to incremental reforms, which accomplish some good: Pass a needle exchange program, you reduce HIV/AIDS; get naloxone or Good Samaritan, you save lives; pass medical marijuana and patients get the chance to not be treated as criminals.

But each one of these steps is also part of a broader vision. Needle exchange is not just about reducing HIV/AIDS; it’s about redefining injection drug users, from criminals to be persecuted to potential partners in a public health campaign. Medical marijuana is about saying that the first people who deserve not to be criminalized are people who use it as medicine, but it also helps to transform the discussion around marijuana regulation.  

I define myself first and foremost as a human rights activist, who happens to be focusing in this area of human rights violations. That drives me, gives me the passion—but I’m not typically putting human rights arguments out there, because that’s not what the public is open to. The public wants to hear about reducing disease, reducing fiscal costs of the drug war, better utilization of scarce criminal justice resources. So I am essentially an idealist, but the work is realistic and pragmatic.     

You’ve been on this road for a long time. How do you assess your progress?  

Obviously marijuana reform in the US, where we now have 18 going on 20 states that have legalized medical marijuana, one and a half to two million legal medical marijuana patients—that’s remarkable. And Washington and Colorado are almost certainly just the first two of many.  

The other incredible breakthrough is the evolution in elite opinion in Latin America. Beginning with the Latin American commission on drugs and democracy in 2009, with former presidents and Nobel Prize winners. And then the presidents calling for open debate. And more recently this OAS report last month, coming up with four scenarios of how drug policy might evolve, one of which was marijuana legalization. This is the first time any multilateral organization has considered marijuana legalization, harm reduction and decriminalization on an equal footing with a drug-war strategy. What the OAS did would have been inconceivable three years ago. Having sitting presidents talking how Santos in Colombia and Molina in Guatemala and Mujica in Uruguay are, is extraordinary. I’m grateful to have been in a position of advising and publicizing with these various commissions. Last year I had one-on-one meetings with Presidents Calderon and Molina and Santos to talk about this.    

How do you see your mission evolving in the years ahead?  

For DPA, something which is going to become a much greater priority is the decriminalization of drug possession, making a serious commitment to treating drug addiction as a health issue, the way we treat cigarette or (mostly) alcohol addiction. Of the 1.5 million or more Americans arrested for drug charges last year, something like three quarters were for possession only. The negative consequences—for public and personal health, the criminal justice costs—are our major priority.  

Down the road, I think ultimately we need to accept that there is always going to be a small percentage of people who are absolutely determined to get their drug of choice. Heroin, cocaine, whatever. And for those people: Offer them treatment; offer them counseling; offer them help. But ultimately, we need to find a way to allow them legal access to the substance they want. It’s looking at what the Europeans and Canadians have been doing with heroin maintenance and finding a way to scale that that does not present greater threats to public health and safety. In the long run, a decade from now, that’s going to be the major challenge.  

Will Godfrey is the Editor-in-Chief of The Fix.

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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.