Ethan Nadelmann: It's Time to 'Step Aside' From the Drug Policy Alliance

By Zachary Siegel 01/30/17

The founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance addressed his decision in a farewell letter.

Ethan Nadelmann
Ethan Nadelmann Photo via Big Think/YouTube

Rolling Stone once called him America’s real drug czar, drug policy reformers see him as a visionary, and hawkish prohibitionists fear the inertia of the movement he helped spark. 

Nadelmann’s decision to “step aside” as executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a non-profit organization responsible for legislating major wins against America’s draconian War on Drugs, sent shockwaves across the drug policy community.

Nadelmann wrote on Twitter last Friday: "I've decided that the time has come for me to step aside as head of DPA. My extraordinary colleagues are ready to take us into the future!"

"Thank you for all that you've accomplished, @ethannadelmann - best wishes for the future!" tweeted Jody Emery, political activist and owner of Cannabis Culture. NORML tweeted, "Thank you for all the important work you have done for many many years for the reform movement, wishing you the best."

"We are so grateful for everything you did to help shape the movement to end the War on Drugs, Ethan, and we are indebted to your leadership," tweeted the Drug Policy Alliance.  

The Fix has interviewed Nadelmann multiple times; in the midst of fear-based drug war propaganda, he was a go-to source for a voice of reason. 

In a farewell letter, Nadelmann wrote that his decision to step down from his leadership role at DPA was one of the “toughest” ones he has ever had to make. He listed many reasons why he felt it was time to move on, after more than 23 years dedicated to making sensible drug policy a reality in America. 

“Passing the age at which my father died,” Nadelmann explained, “the prospect of turning sixty, as I will six weeks from now; my growing sense of multiple missions accomplished, as evidenced by transformations in public opinion, our political victories, and the rapid expansion of our organization and movement.” 

Indeed, under Nadelmann’s leadership, DPA has moved the needle on issues ranging from recreational marijuana to rolling back the mass incarceration of black and Latino non-violent drug offenders. 

Evidence of DPA’s relentless work can be seen throughout the United States—from Obama freeing a record number of non-violent drug offenders from prison to America’s recent 2016 election, in which voters in California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada approved recreational marijuana initiatives. Medical marijuana initiatives also passed in several red states, such as Florida, North Dakota and Arkansas. 

Though there remain many more fights to be won, for Nadelmann, these victories feel like “mission accomplished.” Nadelmann also said he has “a desire for new adventure and challenges.” Moreover, he thinks it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders, for whom he says he has the utmost confidence in continuing to advocate for humane drug policy in America, even under an aggressive Trump Administration. 

“I had strongly hoped and assumed, as I came to this decision, that Donald Trump would not be our next president,” said Nadelmann. “That development did indeed give me pause but not change my mind. His administration will surely hamper our progress at the federal level but do little to undermine our progress and prospects in the states and cities where so much of our work has focused.”

Nadelmann’s greatest regret in resigning, he said, is the prospect of missing the community he worked alongside.

Derek Hodel, DPA’s former deputy executive director, will serve as interim executive director. Meanwhile, the search for a new executive director of DPA is underway.

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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.