Ethan Nadelmann – Ending the Failing War on Drugs

Ethan Nadelmann

Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City-based non-profit organization working to end the War on Drugs. Ethan is regularly interviewed on major news outlets including: Rolling Stone, Fox News, The Colbert Report and more.

Ethan brings a unique and insightful view into as to why the war on drugs has failed. Ethan’s thesis is that we should try to minimize the harm of abusive drug use on society. 

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Key takeaways:

[1:07] – Ethan explains the work of the Drug Policy Alliance.
[3:35] – Ethan gives his opinions on why the war on drugs was started.
[7:15] – Do private prisons have too much power?
[10:28] – Portugal’s model in decriminalizing drugs.
[19:09] – Ethan explains how he sees prohibition ending in the next 5 to 10 years.
[24:59] – How someone can get their voice heard in ending marijuana prohibition.
[28:14] – Ethan’s contact information.

Read Full Transcript

Matthew: Hi, I’m Matthew Kind. Every Monday and Wednesday look for a fresh episode where I’ll take you behind the scenes and interview the leaders of the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at That’s Do you know that feeling when you sense opportunity, when you see something before most people and you just know it will be successful, then you're ready. Ready for CannaInsider Consulting. Learn more at Now here's your program.
Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City based, nonprofit organization working to end the failing war on drugs. Ethan is regularly seen on television and media outlets such as the Huffington Post, Fox News, The Colbert Report, Real Time with Bill Maher and more. Welcome to CannaInsider Ethan.

Ethan: Oh it’s a pleasure to be on Matt. Thanks for having me on.

Matthew: Ethan can you tell us a little bit about your work at the Drug Policy Alliance?

Ethan: Well yeah sure I mean, ending the war on drugs has sort of been my mission in life since I was in my 20s, but I’m now well into my 50s. And I did it initially as a professor at Princeton and then started this organization back about 20 odd years ago under a different name, but now the Drug Policy Alliance. And our overall mission, if I were to sum it up in one sort of complex sentence, it is reducing the role of criminalization and the criminal justice system in drug control to the maximum extent possible while still protecting public health and safety.

So if you imagine a spectrum of ways of dealing with drugs from the most punitive one policies imaginable, you know, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, you know, Malaysia cut off their fingers, whip them, put in, you know, drug test them off the streets and put them in (2.00 camps), to the most free market libertarian imagined cigarette policy in the 50s or 60s, our objective is to move drug policy, especially in the US but even internationally, down this spectrum. Just reducing that unnecessary reliance on criminal law and the criminal justice system as much as possible, but stopping short at the point where you think you would present a real threat to public safety and health.

And within that broader agenda we work on three major areas. The first one is ending marijuana prohibition. So we spend a huge amount of effort to, you know, legalize marijuana for medical purposes, to decriminalize marijuana possession, to reduce marijuana risk and now to actually set up legal regulatory systems for marijuana. The second area has been reducing mass incarceration in the United States and focusing especially on reducing the harsh punishments for people involved in dealing with other illicit drugs who we don’t think should be treated the way that they are right now. And the third has been treating drug use and addiction primarily as a health issue, not a criminal issue. So we took a leadership role in the country in the 90s in increasing access to sterile syringes to reduce HIV and AIDS, and we’re now the leader in the country in trying to reduce overdose fatalities involving heroin and pharmaceutical opiates by making an antidote available, by changing the way police respond to 911 calls and all that sort of thing.

Matthew: Now why do you think we created the war on drugs in the United States? I mean what was the purpose? Was it for political currency? I mean I try to understand why we went down this road. What are your thoughts there?

Ethan: Well there’s many ways to look at it. I mean one is to remember that we’re also one of the few countries in the Western World that prohibited alcohol. So there’s always been this sort of quasi-religious, moralistic notion about the sinfulness of putting psychoactive substances in our body. It manifested, you know, with alcohol, the criminalization of alcohol for about 14 years, back around the 20s. And it’s also manifested with the war on drugs over much of the last century. But if you ask the basic question about why are some drugs treated legally and others treated criminally and you look carefully at the history, what you realize is that it has very little to do with the relative risks of drugs and almost everything to do with who uses and who is perceived to use particular drugs.

So going back to the 19th Century when most opiate consumers were middle aged white women, nobody thought to criminalize it. But when Chinese started showing up in our country and you had all the xenophobia tied into that, that’s when you saw the first opium prohibition laws in Colorado, I’m sorry, Nevada and California in the 1870s and 80s. The criminalization of cocaine, you know, all about prejudice against African Americans in the South a hundred years ago. The criminalization of marijuana, right, deeply about xenophobia involving Mexican Americans and Mexican migrants beginning in 1913, running through the 30s, before we ever saw federal marijuana prohibition in most of the states in the Southwest and the West. So understanding that the deeply non-antiscientific roots of drug prohibition with cannabis and other drugs, and how much that is about ethnic and racial prejudice is really crucially important.

Matthew: I saw your Ted Talk, great job on that. You highlight that we have so many prisoners relative to our population in the United States. Why do we have so many prisoners? It seems insane.

Ethan: Well this is not consistent. You know, US, many people know this. We have less than 5% of the world’s population, but almost 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. We rank first in the world in per capita incarceration rates. Our incarceration rate is unprecedented in the history of democratic societies. We lock up more people in America on drug charges than all of Western Europe locks up for everything and they have 100 million more people than we do. And if you look at the incarceration of African Americans in this society, it was almost nothing comparable in the history of, you know, in history, period, more or less. I mean that’s why people refer to the war on drugs as the new Jim Crow.

But it’s not consistent, you know, until the 1970s we were closer to the average on this stuff. And I think what happened was it really emerged in the 70s, 80s and 90s. It was used for political purposes by Richard Nixon and Regan and Bush and the democrats always fearful of being outflanked by republicans on the crime issues, sort of jumped all onboard this stuff. There were real fears around drugs, but on a crazed, hysterical reliance on using the criminal justice system. In a way the drugs wars in the late 80s and early 90s were almost a form of McCarthyism on steroids, but applied in the issue of drugs instead. And we’re only just now beginning to sort of roll this stuff back.

Matthew: Do you think private prisons perpetuate the war on drugs? Do they have too much power in influencing legislation around this?

Ethan: Well I should say that we’ve been focused, there are two major thing we have had to deal with and for DPA our biggest problem has actually not been so much the private prison industry as it has been the prison guards’ unions especially in California, sometimes in New York. You know which are also all about the money and jobs. And I would just say thank god the private prison corporations and the prison guards’ union hate one another or else we’d really be in trouble. I mean they would be a powerful force together.

I think if we were doing more work than we are in the South and we’re beginning to expand that area, that’s where you see the private prison corporations playing a particularly pernicious role. It’s happening elsewhere too. I mean it’s happening now in California. It’s happening in a range of other places. But obviously their financial interest is in maximizing the number of people behind bars. It’s only a growth industry if you have a growth in the number of people behind bars as well as shift from public prisons to private prisons. So although we have not been that involved with tangling with them directly and we sometimes see their fingerprints on some problematic, you know, political efforts, I’d say that they are a very problematic force, but not one that we’ve engaged all that much directly as yet.

Matthew: What do you think would be possible if we took the budget for keeping people in cages and helped treat them for addiction or education around responsible use for nonviolent criminals?

Ethan: I mean it would be… I mean when you have 2.3 million people behind bars a day, a vast majority of them people behind bars for nonviolent offenses, either drug stuff or low level property offenses and things like that, many of them having substance abuse problems, simply shifting a significant chunk of the $100 billion or whatever it is we’re spending on that prison industrial complex and much more than that actually. You know, shifting a significant chunk, to the things like, you know, helping young kids, you know, job training, job employment, treatment or drug treatment for people who need it, literacy efforts, investing in the communities that are most impacted by the war on drugs, it would be a monumental shift in the US.

And keep in mind that rates of drug use in our country are not that much higher than in places in Europe. And rates of nonviolent crime, essentially apart from gun crime, are not that much higher here right. And even in terms of, you know, we think of Europe as this homogeneous, white place, but in fact the racial/ethnic diversity in Europe in many countries is approaching that in the US. And so what’s really going on is we’re relying on this criminal justice system in a way that no other civilized or even less civilized societies or less developed societies rely on it. And so it would have a monumental impact including reducing criminality.

Matthew: You mentioned Europe there. Can you tell us a little bit about Portugal’s model in decriminalizing drugs?

Ethan: Yeah so Portugal, you know, there’s been three really interesting models coming out of Europe. The first obviously was the Dutch Cannabis Policy, the Coffee Shop System which emerged not through legislation really, but through sort of how it began with medical marijuana here in the late 70s and early 80s and has been a relatively stable, with some you know bumps and turns here and there, a fairly stable system of keeping the wholesale production of marijuana illegal while effectively legally tolerating the retail sale through coffee shops. And by in large that’s been a very significant success in terms of marijuana use and probably relates being less than in the US, young people using cannabis less. The number of people who go on to use drugs like cocaine or heroin less than it is in the US or in other societies. And almost nobody getting arrested. Some problems with keeping the wholesale market criminal.

The second major model was what emerged in Switzerland in the early 90s and then spread to Germany, the Netherlands, England, Denmark, and now Canada which was a very advanced harm reduction policy. Whereby people who had a problem with heroin could go to clinics and get pharmaceutical heroin provided by the state or maybe they would have to pay a few bucks and good treatment services and help getting their lives together. And the evidence is now conclusive that providing pharmaceutical grade, legal heroin to people who have been addicted to street heroin for many years, reduces death, disease, crime, save tax payers money. And in fact among the principle champions in Europe, it has become the police chief who see this as a sort of win-win-win, in terms of reducing acquisitive crime, reducing black market and giving a nod to the public health approach.

The Portugal approach is the third one. What they did about thirteen years ago was to change the national law and basically say we’re not going to put anybody in jail for simply drug possession. When the cops catch somebody or find somebody in possession of illicit drugs whether it’s marijuana or something else, they’re directed to what’s called a dissuasion committee that interviews them, see if they really have a drug use problem or not. If they don’t have a problem, they admonish them, and they go on their way. If they do have a problem, they send them to get help. But there’s no drug testing, there’s no coerced treatment. The basic Portuguese approach is to essentially to say we’re not going to spend resources putting you in jail for possession of any drug. If you’re really a bad guy, we’ll catch you for something else. And the review of this after ten years shows basically significant success. No big jumps in drug use or abuse. No big jumps in criminality. Reductions in money, reductions in problematic drug use, reduction in HIV and HEP C, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. So all three of these models, but especially now that, I mean (13.35 unclear) less of a model for us now with cannabis. But the other two models are very important ones for which my organization, The Drug Policy Alliance, is deeply committed to educating Americans about these options and about trying to develop them in the U.S.

Matthew: I’m really glad you mentioned heroin there because there’s a lot of people that might be listening that say, hey cannabis is one thing, but do we really want to be a society that’s handing out heroin. And I think the model you described is very helpful because A) they’re getting clean heroin; B) they’re going to get it anyway and C) it’s not driving the desperate criminal measures to get the heroin. And when they come in they’re getting that education. Say look there’s opportunities to recover here. I just think it’s a much more compassionate approach.

Ethan: Well that’s exactly right Matt. I mean keep in mind also when you’re talking about heroin, we’re not talking here about selling heroin over the counter the way that you do alcohol, cigarettes or increasingly marijuana. Right, this is about clinics. It’s essentially like methadone programs except we include another option which is pharmaceutical heroin. Heroin when you take it into the human body it becomes morphine. It’s very interesting. When (14.45 academics) interview heroin addicts and ask them what’s the toughest road to quit, most will say is cigarettes, tobacco right. So we tend to speak of heroin as a demonic drug. But a lot of what we think about heroin has to do with it’s prohibition rather the drug per se.

And there’s a very interesting analogies between nicotine and heroin. In a way legal heroin, like they have in Europe, is sort of the equivalent of these now e-cigarettes and tobacco vaporizers that we have in the US. Keep in mind, with nicotine, right. If you use it on a regular basis, it can be very hard to stop using it. Some people do, some other people struggle. Secondly the other thing with nicotine is if you consume a high dose of nicotine, like everything that’s in like an e-cig and take the whole thing in one blast or something like that, it will kill you. Right, nicotine is a deadly drug in very high doses in the same way that opiates taken in enormously high doses or taken in combination with alcohol will kill you. But it’s also the case that you can take pure nicotine in low doses or you can take pure heroin in modest doses with a reliable clean supply, and you can live to be 99 years old taking either one of these things. You can hold a job. You can function. You can drive. You can build a family. All of these things because ultimately over time both of these drugs don’t have that much of a psychoactive affect anymore. Right, they have an effect on the human organism, some of which can be pleasant. But there’s a huge difference between being addicted to street heroin of unknown potency and purity, being part of that life and having pharmaceutical grade heroin in a way that it was a stable dose in the same way that people are taking nicotine in e-cigs today.

Matthew: It’s so funny you say, you know, heroin is morphine in the body, but those two words, heroin and morphine, have different connotations depending on who’s using them in what context. If I’m using morphine in a hospital okay. Heroine on the street, you’re a criminal.

Ethan: Well Matt I will tell you something. You know, in some of the studies they do with heroin, they would do these double blind controlled studies, and they would take long term heroin addicts, and they would give, you know, half of them pharmaceutical heroin and half of them injectable methadone. And everybody could tell the difference. And then they would give them, you know, half injectable heroin and half injectable morphine and most people could tell the difference. But then they gave half injectable heroin and the other half something, Dilaudid. You know, and what was interesting was long time experienced heroin users could not tell the difference between heroin and Dilaudid.

Now Dilaudid is a drug that, you know, hundreds of thousands of Americans take each year in the hospital to deal with pain, like sometimes take home, whatever. And so the amazing thing is if you think about it, if tomorrow we could snap our fingers and all of sudden all the heroin in the world would disappear and just be replaced with Dilaudid, nobody would know the difference. If everybody, if every hospital administered Dilaudid to a patient recovering from surgery or whatever it is, if we were to substitute that with pharmaceutical heroin, the odds are nobody would know the difference, no difference in addiction, no difference in this sort of stuff.

In fact if we were to spell heroin D-I-L-A-U-D-I-D, or spell Dilaudid H-E-R-O-I-N, right, nobody would know the difference. I mean the interesting thing is it’s about the cultural historical, association with this drug or associations with the people who use it. You know the things that happen to family members when they get involved in this kind of illicit, recreational addictive use, but understanding what these drugs are really about. I mean nobody wants their friends or loved ones or kids using this stuff because it can be so highly dependent causing. But the difference between a world in which heroin is essentially legally available through clinics as opposed to one where it’s only available through the streets is like night and day.

Matthew: Now we’ve had a lot of positive progress in ending prohibition in cannabis the last three years. How do you see prohibition ending in the next five to ten years across the US?

Ethan: Well and there are plans, right, you know my organization DPA, you know, has played a key role. I mean we were responsible in big measure for the first seven states legalizing medical marijuana. From California in ’96, you know, through Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Nevada, Oregon and Maine, you know, for 2000. And MPP, Marijuana Policy Project, has played an important role as well since then with the space focusing on different states and helping one another where we can. And on marijuana legalization, once again you know, some of these initiatives where initiated by local activists as in Colorado or Washington. Oftentimes with the collaboration of DPA or Marijuana Policy Project.

What I see going forward is California is going to be one wild and crazy campaign, but it’s DPA priority for 2016. MPP has been focusing, I think, on Maine and Massachusetts, Nevada and Arizona. And in those cases we’re helping them with the drafting and they will help them with the campaign as well, and MPP will be helpful in California as well as other organizations. There may be an initiative in Ohio this year actually. There may be other states like Missouri where something could pop up. There’s going to be other states probably in New England that will begin to legalize through the legislative process rather than the initiative process.

So I think, I’d say for me and DPA, the Drug Policy Alliance, our focus really is by keeping the ball moving down field. What we want to avoid is what one might call the Montana problem, or the L. A. problem. You know, Montana legalized medical marijuana in ’04 and it spread enormously quickly, mostly in responsible hands, but the state failed to set up any, you know, thoughtful regulatory system. And certain people in the industry and some people who were, you know, problematic in other ways began taking advantage of the system. The public turned against it. The legislature changed hands, and all of a sudden Montana found it’s medical marijuana system get rolled back by, you know 80 to 90% and almost get eliminated by the new legislature.

So and L.A. was a situation also where the city council failed to establish regulations of the sort that we saw in Northern California communities and some Southern California ones. You know, you end up with a thousand outlets, you know, the public is agitated about this. And actually what happened in L.A. made it much more difficult to legalize medical marijuana around the rest of the country because everywhere we went legislators were seeing the news reports about Los Angeles and saying we don’t want that. And we’d have to keep explaining to them that, you know, we weren’t proposing an L.A. model. We were proposing something that looked more like New Mexico or a range of other places, right.

And so what I’d say here is the key is to keep this thing moving forward in a responsible way. You know, I’ve been speaking more recently to industry associations. I’ll be giving a big talk in the Bay area in a week in a half at a conference that’s going on out there. And it’s really to say to the industry, you guys, you know, are the beneficiaries of a movement that was driven by people like me and you know a number of others and who raised money from very wealthy people who weren’t looking to make money in this field right. They were driven by concerns about the state of American society or civil rights or civil liberties or racial justice or what have you. Now you’re benefitting from all of this, but do so in a responsible way. Don’t get greedy. Don’t be short sighted. If people are jumping in this to make a quick buck and they don’t give a damn about what’s happening more broadly, those folks gotta be, you know, pushed out as much as possible.

Let’s face it, marijuana legalization lies at a unique intersection in American history. It involves the intersection of a movement driven primarily by civil rights and civil liberties, with the transformation of emergence of a legal industry that is going to be many tens of billions of dollars a year, there’s nothing else like that. I mean the gay rights, civil rights, women’s rights all had major economic consequences for the country. But they did create a brand new sort of new legal market in the way that this is happening. Repealing alcohol prohibition, someone somewhere, but that essentially reinstituted a market that existed just 14 or 15 years before.

So in this unique intersection I think it comes with some special obligation that, and I will say that, you know, for me who’s been, you know, an occasional marijuana consumer for almost 40 years and who enjoys and relishes many aspects about the marijuana culture and about the way this stuff is emerged, the part that’s bittersweet is seeing this emerge into a kind of, you know, modern day industry with no emotional ideological or cultural political connection to the movement that created the industry. I accept the fact that, you know, this is America. We live in a high capitalist nation. There’s only so much one can do to constrain the way that, you know, the legal market is going to emerge, but it is the bittersweet element about all of this for me.

Matthew: Well thanks for playing that out Ethan. What’s the most effective way for listeners to make their voices heard? I mean is it at the state levels, the local level, you know, reaching out to you? Where can they have the most leverage in helping, you know, end prohibition and acting responsibly like you just mentioned?

Ethan: Well I mean the first thing I’m obliged to say is join the Drug Policy Alliance, become you know, get informed through our mailings, become a financial supporter, attend our bi-annual conferences which will be in D.C. on this coming November. You know do the same with Marijuana Policy Project, with Normal, with Americans for Safe Access. Just get involved in supporting because the more powerful the national organizations are, the more effective we will be in keeping this commencing forward.

The second thing I would say is that, you know, all politics is local. You know the old slogan, “Think local, act local” is really important. So getting involved in the local advocacy efforts in one way or another and advocating for particular models and keeping in mind that advocacy is not just stating loudly what you believe. Advocacy is about focusing on accomplishment of particular objectives and doing so in an intelligent and responsible way. You know, part of what DPA has brought to this broader movement, right is basically doing ballot initiatives, doing legislative reform, doing public education in ways that really have helped transform state laws, national laws, public opinion and all of that.

And so you know, being part of that process, I think certainly be as deeply informed as possible. The more you read, read the books about the history of marijuana prohibition and marijuana policy, marijuana laws. And keep in mind that marijuana reform needs to be seen as part of a broader drug policy reform movement. I’m always out there, you know, talking to people at conferences specializing in the field of pain management with opioid medications. And I say to them, how many of you are using cannabis, you know, or recommending it or are informed about it in terms of dealing with pain. And if the majority don’t raise their hands, I admonish them say that they are being irresponsible as physicians and scientists by ignoring this. And then the very next day I’ll go and talk to a cannabis group, all of whom are sort of saying damn the opiates. Opiates are deadly, get people off them, marijuana works and I’ll say guys, shut up already.

Obviously cannabis is safer and better to use than opiates for certain types of pain and certain types of people and you can’t die of an overdose. But cannabis is not going to deal with certain types of pain that opiates work for, and we don’t advance by one group of drug consumers or drug whatever by Banning in another area. Yes marijuana is special. Yes marijuana is unique, yes, yes, yes, but that doesn’t mean that we say let’s legalize marijuana so we can crack down on the heroin junkies or the crackheads or the people doing this and that. No, the bottom line is you make sensible policy, right, and the policy for heroin and cocaine is not going to be the same as for marijuana. But ultimately it’s about a vision of a different society in which we accept that drugs are here to stay and in which we learn how to live with them so they cause the least possible harm and in some cases the greatest possible benefit.

Matthew: Very well said, Ethan. How can listeners find you online, on Twitter or social outlets? How can they learn more about the drug policy laws?

Ethan: You know, if they know how to spell my name which is not easy, but it’s Ethan Nadelmann. You know you’ll find me on Twitter, and you can sign up for my Tweets and such. I have a Facebook page as well, but probably the more valuable on is the Facebook page and the Tweets of Drug Policy Alliance, the organization which once again you can easily find. Go to the website and you can sign up for our email alerts. And those also provide notices about how to get involved politically or when something’s happening.

Go to the website and that will tell you about the upcoming DPA conference in November which is the leading conference of the drug policy reform movement worldwide. And I think those will be the key ways. You know, we have offices in five states; New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, California and Colorado and an office in D.C. We’re working internationally. We’re also supporting efforts and working with allies in about half the other states in the country. So, you know, and I should say for people who are university students or law students or graduate students, if you’re passionate about this area and you’re really psyched, well we have internships I think unpaid basically, but internships at our DPA offices. So you can get involved there. If you’re looking to work at DPA, go to our website. You can see the job openings that are there. You know, the more the better. We’re building a movement here, not just about ending marijuana prohibition, but about a more thoughtful and rational drug policy across the board.

Matthew: Ethan thank you for being on CannaInsider today. We really appreciate it.

Ethan: Okay thanks Matt. Good luck and thanks for having me on.

Matthew: If you enjoyed the show today, please consider leaving us a review on iTunes. Every five star review helps us to bring the best guests to you. Learn more at What are the five disruptive trends that will shape the cannabis industry in the next five years? Find out with your free report at That's Have a suggestion for an awesome guest on, email us feedback at We would love to hear from you.

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  • tpapa

    great piece E!