Reformer Profile: Ethan Nadelmann 8/10/01

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Special to DRCNet, by Steve Beitler

"We won't win until the average parent believes drug reform protects kids better than the war on drugs," prominent drug reformer Ethan Nadelmann told more than 50 people at the San Francisco Medical Society on July 25. Nadelmann's visit was sponsored by The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, the reform group he leads as executive director. His free-form talk blended highlights of his personal trajectory as a reformer with his views on California's Proposition 36 and developments in Europe and Canada, among other topics. On a day he described as one where he had "more questions than answers," Nadelmann raised plenty of questions for the audience to wrestle with as well.

To win over those parents, reformers need to keep working on many fronts, especially the political one, where grassroots organizing, public education and support for local reformers will continue to produce incremental victories that move reform ahead, said Nadelmann. That cautious pragmatism also shaped his response as a funding gatekeeper for the drug reform movement. "These days, when somebody has a great idea, my first question is, 'What's the most cost-effective way to get that message or idea out? What's your distribution plan?' I'm a political tactician now," Nadelmann said.

It wasn't always that way. Nadelmann's turn toward drug reform began in his undergraduate days in the late '70s, when, he told the audience, he learned that a "zero-tolerance attitude punishes young people for nothing more than being young people." Then, during a stint at the US State Department, he developed a growing interest in the intersection of criminal justice and foreign policy as he observed the workings of US policy in Central and Latin America at close range.

The experience produced a surprising solicitude for drug warriors. "In the mid-80's I interviewed hundreds of CIA and DEA guys as well as bankers in that region," he said. "I learned that DEA guys are people too. We can't dehumanize them. They would talk about the people they would bust and they'd get torn up over it." The audience let that slide. Nadelmann professed astonishment at both the stupidity and the silliness he encountered during his tour of duty. He told the audience of "the massive ignorance about drugs even at the highest levels" of these organizations and the obsessive security precautions they engendered. He recounted (legally) poring through classified files: "Those files were secret, but they mostly had newspaper articles in them."

By 1987 Nadelmann was at Princeton University, where he taught politics and public affairs and formed the Princeton Working Group on the Future of Drug Use and Alternatives to Drug Prohibition. The group did not exist in a void. By then, the drug reform movement was growing in strength and scope, Nadelmann recalled. As mainstream America grappled with its crack cocaine hysteria, Kevin Zeese and Arnold Trebach were starting the Drug Policy Foundation in the nation's capital, and Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore was speaking out publicly on the failure of the war on drugs.

Parlaying his work and growing visibility into contacts with others interested in supporting reform, Nadelmann used a lunch with financier George Soros to lay the groundwork for a new, well financed organization, The Lindesmith Center. From there, Nadelmann encountered other wealthy reformers, such as businessman/educator John Sperling, who opened his eyes to the possibilities of the ballot initiative process, and business luminaries George Zimmer (who was in the San Francisco audience) and Peter Lewis, who wanted to work on medical marijuana and other reform goals. Thus was born the 800-pound gorilla of the contemporary drug reform movement.

Nadelmann's San Francisco stop came three weeks after California's Proposition 36, which mandates treatment for first- and second-time non-violent drug offenders, took effect. The proposition was on Nadelmann's mind. His organization, the merged Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, is running one of the main watchdog efforts on the new law's implementation and has much political capital invested in its success.

"This is probably the greatest prison sentencing reform in US history," Nadelmann said, but warned his listeners that challenges lay ahead. "We have to make 36 work as well as possible; we've got to deliver on its promise. This is tough because the people who have to make it work are a lot of the people who opposed it."

There's also a need to publicize the successes of Prop. 36 to help build a positive public perception, he added. Last but not least, implementation of the initiative has to be consistent with harm reduction principles. For Nadelmann, this means no punitive drug testing and full restoration of patient-physician confidentiality. He didn't explain how making drug treatment part of the criminal justice system would accomplish all this, but he did acknowledge the ongoing debate within the reform movement over coerced treatment. "I know some people say it just puts a benign face on prohibition. But I believe that if reform wins legitimacy in small steps, it builds public confidence and lays the groundwork for further reform."

But he is also looking abroad and he likes what he sees. "There's been a great shift in public opinion in Canada and the United Kingdom," he said. "In the UK, the debate has shifted from whether cannabis should be decriminalized or legalized to how to do this responsibly. There's also forward movement in Belgium and Portugal -- even France is moving in a good direction. Switzerland is looking at models for legal regulation of marijuana," he added.

Nadelmann also offered concrete suggestions for building momentum toward reform. Above all, "learn, learn, learn" about drug policy and reform. "The more you know, the better advocate you can be." Reformers also need to "put ourselves in other people's shoes, especially those people who are skeptical." He urged audience members to keep in mind that "advocacy is about communication, not self-expression," and that effective communication requires the careful use of language that puts ideas across in terms that people can both understand and relate to. Finally, he urged people to "help us keep building a movement by organizing, by supporting your local reformers and by working on drug policy issues that are particularly important to you."

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Issue #198, 8/10/01 Editorial: Nostalgia for the '80s | With National Drug Treatment Binge Looming, Survivors Conference in Suburban DC Targets Abusive Programs | Court Ruling Brings New York City Needle Exchange Suit a Step Closer to Class Action Status | Two Steps Backward, No Steps Forward in Illinois: No to Hemp, Yes to Draconian Ecstasy Penalties | Canadian Health Minister Has "Open Mind" on Marijuana Legalization | Reams Reeferendum Underway in Virginia, Libertarian Candidate Enters Lt. Governor Race to Push Marijuana Reform | Hawaii Pays Hemp Advocates $75,000 in Persecution Settlement | Reformer Profile: Ethan Nadelmann | T-shirts for Victory! Special New Offer and Appeal from DRCNet This Month | Media Scan: Major Dan Forbes/Salon.com Scoop, National Review, OC Register, Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Economist | Resources: Andean Regional Initiative, Salvia Divinorum, Australian National Crime Authority | Action Alerts: Ecstasy Bill, HEA, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana, John Walters | HEA Campaign Still Seeking Student Victim Cases -- New York Metropolitan Area Especially Urgent | The Reformer's Calendar
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