Ethan Nadelmann on drug policy reform

Ethan gave a particularly stirring and effective speech at the Nantucket Project last week.

I enjoyed this quote defining who we are as drug policy reformers:

We’re the people who love drugs, we’re the people who hate drugs, we’re the people who don’t give a damn about drugs, but every one of us believes that the war on drugs is not the way to deal with the reality of drugs in our society.


The speech is about 20 minutes, but it’s quite engaging, so the time flies by. Very nice job and worth a watch.

I struggled a little bit with his drug policy reform objective statement:

The objective of drug policy reform is to reduce the role of criminalization and the criminal justice system in drug control to the maximum extent consistent with protecting public safety and health.

I think it’s a good statement — he’s definitely on the right track and he’s trying not to make it even longer or more convoluted, but I guess my own bias is that I’m not sure that “reduce” is a sufficiently strong term when talking about the criminal justice system and drug policy. Because it isn’t just a matter of lessening the devastation of the criminal justice system, but also of recognizing that other methods besides the criminal justice system can be more effective in reducing the harms of drug abuse (without adding their own harms).

Perhaps adding two words: “…to reduce and replace the role of criminalization…” would strengthen that statement a bit.

Alternatively, I might take a different approach to the notion and say that the ultimate goal of drug policy reform is to achieve a system of drug controls whereby the negative effects of drug abuse are lessened to the extent possible without adding negative effects to society from the controls themselves. (That’s also not perfect, but I may continue to work on it.)

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32 Responses to Ethan Nadelmann on drug policy reform

  1. dag800 says:

    They need help!
    Treatment, Not Jail, For Low Level Drug Crimes
    Prison isn’t the answer.

    • John says:

      Forced treatment isn’t the answer either. Treatment should be made available to anyone ready to end their addictions, but forcing treatment on someone who doesn’t want it is just a waste of resources.

    • Opiophiliac says:

      “They need help!”

      No we don’t, the vast majority of drug users are occasional or recreational users.

      Then there are the minority of users who are dependent on drugs(addicts), and even here we can distinguish between problematic and non-problematic patterns of dependency. Many people are dependent on tobacco, but their dependency does not cause problems for themselves’ or society. Similarly you can be dependent on heroin, but if you are wealthy enough to support your habit without resorting to crime it is not a problem. Interventions for these people is inappropriate, it is essentially using medicine as an excuse to change certain lifestyles that some people in positions of power do not like, really no different than the pathologization of homosexuality.

      The only case that the state has authority to intercede are the problematic users. And even here we must be careful to distinguish if the problems are limited to the individual (eg a smoker who cannot/will not give up smoking despite cancer) and problems that affect other people or society in general (eg the cocaine addict who robs banks to fund their habit, the alcohol user who drives intoxicated, ect).

      And don’t come back with some nonsense about drug users costing more in health care dollars. Public health does not excuse tyranny. And harm to others does not include people who are offended by the notion that someone might want to smoke a joint or inject themselves with heroin. It has to be real, tangible harm and not just hurt feelings.

      • primus says:

        When there is a legal supply at a price which is within reason, the number of problem drug users will be reduced even more because it is the high price of black market entheogens which leads to much of the ‘drug crime’. Switzerland is demonstrating that fact vividly right now.

  2. Jose says:

    Looks like scientists are making progress to help rid society of marijuana addiction:
    MJ Addiction Treatment So relieved that research dollars and intellectual capital are being used to fight something that I am not even sure exists. I am also guessing our tax dollars are funding this.

    • Duncan20903 says:


      If our tax dollars aren’t funding this bullcrap then these people certainly do have their hands out and hoping.

      I would really like to see some analyses of dopamine levels in a person’s brain after choosing to enjoy cannabis. My personal experience with cocaine tells me that it’s just not relevant. The prohibitionist “scientists” have been using this meme since before the discovery of the endo-cannabinoid system. No, I haven’t seen any relevant data, that’s the point of this post. I want to see it. I’m willing to bet dollars to dirt that the effect on dopamine levels in cannabinoidians is marginal at best, and further that the effects on the endo-cannabinoid system render the effect on dopamine levels irrelevant.

    • Tony Aroma says:

      I recall reading somewhere that some pharmaceutical company was testing cannabinoid blockers. I believe they found the side effects were very unpleasant, the exact opposite of actual cannabinoids, like loss of appetite.

      • “The problem was that they made people depressed. In several large clinical trials of rimonabant it raised the risk of suffering depression and other psychiatric problems, like anxiety and irritability, compared to placebo. The reported rates of these symptoms ranged from a few % up to over 40% depending upon the population, but there have been no trials (except very small ones) in which these effects weren’t seen. This means that CB1 antagonists cause depression rather more consistently than antidepressants treat it.”

  3. claygooding says:

    I hate to think that the only reasoning that will break through the lobby money on drug law reform is when our economy completely collapses and the war on drugs ends because there is no money to pay the DEA and other letter gangs that make a living playing war,,,but it seems that is what it is going to take.

    • N.T. Greene says:

      Welcome to America. Money talks.

      Man, I hate money. It makes people act funny.

      • Duncan20903 says:


        You mean funny like Bill Gates handing out free condoms and children’s vaccines in Africa? Well it’s something I would never have thought up in 10,000 years unless it actually happened.

        It ain’t the money doing things. Now me, I do my best to take as many dollars away from the assholes as is humanly possible. GW Pharma’s stock price would be the same today even if I didn’t own my shares. But some asshole would have more money if I weren’t long.

  4. Servetus says:

    Defelonization is a word Ethan might want to toss around, since it seems consistent with his small-step approach to ending the drug war. Perhaps defelonization would make demisdemeanorization easier to accomplish later, if not to pronounce.

    Ethan Nadelmann tends to approach reform conservatively at times. In the mid-90s, he thought marijuana should only be used for medicating serious diseases like AIDS and cancer. Today, the medical marijuana community knows it’s not in anyone’s interest to discriminate against the lesser diseases, lest they get offended and turn into greater diseases.

    Good health is more important than rabid political ideologies advanced by the prohibs who scheme to exploit public ignorance of psychoactive drugs and their effects. It’s a matter of priorities. Human rights should lead if humanitarianism is to be a designated goal of a social policy. When it doesn’t lead, we get wars as the alternative.

    • He says he thinks marijuana should be legalized. I think he is advancing the idea that politically nothing happens overnight.

      Until the Feds quit pumping out the false data about marijuana through bought and paid for predetermined studies to prove a negative William Buckley’s quotes hold true:

      “The anti-marijuana campaign is a cancerous tissue of lies, undermining law enforcement, aggravating the drug problem, depriving the sick of needed help, and suckering well-intentioned conservatives and countless frightened parents. Narcotics police are an enormous, corrupt international bureaucracy … and now fund a coterie of researchers who provide them with ‘scientific support’ … fanatics who distort the legitimate research of others.”

      The main purveyers of this are the DEA in co-operation with other concerned Federal agencies who share the point of view that marijuana is a dangerous and illegal drug and also feel it is their job to ensure that it stays that way.

      Using NSA data in drug investigations makes them an accessory to the largest breach of the fourth amendment since 1776.

      Ethan seems well suited to keep things pointed in a direction and to try to keep the train on the tracks.

      Knowing the enemy is vital, especially one that has convinced an entire generation of a bald faced lie about the dangerousness of marijuana and the medical uselessness of it in the name of the public good. An agency based on lies is crooked from the git. Who is gonna put a brake on their train of lies? Ethan is trying to. I give this man great credit for having the distasteful job of having to deal with heads of state and Washington’s politicians, and still be speaking to the public at large while maintaining a sense of balance.

      • Servetus says:

        Knowing how the drug enforcement system is flawed can be used to determine who will join and who will work to promote it. Currently, it’s a tool used for the elimination of people, not drugs; and so it’s the preference of tyrants. Tyrants will always be attracted to drug enforcement as long as eliminationism exceeds harm reduction. Their goal is absolute control through harm.

        Placed within the domain of a tyrannical regime, drug enforcement takes on the final solution, such that leaders in Iran and China execute people for drug crimes. In this sense, a country’s greatness is determined by how it treats its own citizens, not by who or what it eliminates in a vain attempt to achieve some senseless genocidal ideal.

        Ethan Nadelmann has valiantly and effectively fought drug tyranny from the beginning, starting when it wasn’t popular to do so. He’s truly helped make it popular. And I’m glad he’s using the term ‘human rights’, because it ties the drug reform movement to nearly every other human rights movement concerned with race relations, judicial and environmental reform. Human rights movements that can relate in some way to others always have a better chance of success.

  5. Francis says:

    The goal of drug policy reform should be to encourage the adoption of drug policies that are based on harm reduction rather than harm promotion, compassion rather than violence, science rather than superstition, truthful education rather than propaganda, voluntary assistance for those who need it rather than coerced “treatment” for those who don’t, and respect for civil liberties rather than their systematic violation.

  6. Benjamin says:

    There will always be a place for criminal justice in drug policy. Just as there’s always a place for criminal justice in alcohol policy. Difference is, there need to be aggravating factors beyond simple use. Drunk driving, public drunkenness, getting drunk and attaching someone, etc.

    • Adobedoug says:

      Wrong! Thank you for playing.
      As you yourself suggest it isn’t the drug use (alcohol is a drug)) itself that is an issue for criminal justice, but violence against others that need addressed by police/courts. This has nothing to do with policy. We already have laws against violence and driving while intoxicated.

  7. allan says:

    ya know… it’s nice to stop in and see that I need not say a thing (and I’m sure there are others agreeing)(agreeing that it’s a good thing I don’t stop and chat up the couch) ’cause y’all be so eloquentious. It’s no wonder all we get from the prohibs is drive-by non-substantial one-liners.

    Rock on mates!

  8. he needs to dump the “protecting public safety and health” part — drug use is not a public health threat, and saying crap like that leaves the doors of persecution and abuse wide open

  9. DdC says:

    PTSD Sufferers Qualify for Medical Marijuana

    ore the laaaaand of the freeeeeee.

    Will that be Koch for profit Prison or Califony for profit rehabilitation asylums? Do you want fries with that order?

    Many Veterans are the Enemy in the War
    Sam Stone came home, To his wife and family After serving in the conflict overseas. And the time that he served, Had shattered all his nerves, And left a little shrapnel in his knee. But the morphine eased the pain, And the grass grew round his brain, And gave him all the confidence he lacked, With a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back…

    Sam Stone’s welcome home Didn’t last too long. He went to work when he’d spent his last dime And Sammy took to stealing When he got that empty feeling For a hundred dollar habit without overtime. And the gold rolled through his veins Like a thousand railroad trains, And eased his mind in the hours that he chose, While the kids ran around wearin’ other peoples’ clothes…

    Sam Stone was alone When he popped his last balloon Climbing walls while sitting in a chair Well, he played his last request While the room smelled just like With an overdose hovering in the air But life had lost its fun And there was nothing to be done But trade his house that he bought on the G.I. Bill For a flag draped casket on a local heroes’ hill…

    There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes, Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose. Little pitchers have big ears, Don’t stop to count the years, Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios. Mmmmm….
    Sam Stone * John Prine * Souvenirs

  10. claygooding says:

    We have corporations mixing up chemical compounds that have a possible harms list worse than the symptom or disease,,we have corporations tampering with genetics in our foods with no idea of the long term dangers and harms the end product will produce,,,why worry over a little health risk from drugs?
    We already live in a Russian Roulette commodity world.

  11. Duncan20903 says:


    Well it’s still a bit early to tell for sure but it appears likely that we have a couple of very, very strong candidates to take Law Enforcement Asshole of the Year dishonors for 2013:

    Police investigate infant death, arrest father on marijuana charges

    The death of an 8-month-old child Monday on the Far Westside led to the arrest of the baby’s father on drug charges.

    Just after 1 p.m., police and medics responded to reports of an infant boy who was not breathing or moving, acccording to an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department report. Efforts to revive the child were unsuccessful, and he was pronounced dead at IU West Hospital in Avon.

    Back at the baby’s home in the 500 block of Tomahawk Trail, however, police saw items in the home that raised their suspicions and sought a search warrant, the IMPD report states. The apartment is south of 10th Street and west of Girls School Road.

    By day’s end, police arrested the boy’s father — Charles Boston, 34 — on preliminary charges of dealing and possessing marijuana. From the apartment, they confiscated 28 marijuana plants and a lamp used for growing them, police said, in addition to a grinder and other items used for preparing marijuana for sale. Police also confiscated a 9 mm rifle and ammunition.

  12. Duncan20903 says:


    Another study of drinking alcohol, (some) drugs and the incidence of metabolites in the bodily fluids of drivers involved in fatal collisions in 2007.
    Study: Marijuana involved in fewer fatal wrecks than other drugs

    I recall one of the first accidents involving a fatality which found that one of the drivers was cannabis addled which came to my attention. I’ve related this story on this blog previously. I’m only repeating it because by happenstance that collision occurred in 2007. There was no need for testing, the police recovered his pipe and headstash from the driver’s foot well, a proverbial smoking gun (bowl?). It was in Pennsylvania so there was no need to prove actual impairment to convict him.

    The details of the collision found the cannabis addled man stopped at a controlled intersection waiting for the light to turn green. He was rear ended by a drunk driver with a BAC significantly in excess of the per se “limit” and it was the drunk that died. None of these details mattered to the ONDCP, they put a link on their home page and claimed that the collision was caused by the cannabis addled man, and never mentioned that the other driver was 3 sheets to the wind drunk. So was this particular driver included in the study?

    The studies results said cannabis addled driving caused a 1.83x higher chance of fatal collision than sober. Drinking alcohol at 13.64x and just to annoy me drinking alcohol combined with any of the popular substances on the naughty lists was quantified at a 23.24x increase. The rat bastard scientist who did the study didn’t bother to break out drinking alcohol combined with only cannabis. Would anyone care to speculate why that makes me want to jump to the conclusion that there was no hysterical rhetoric value in publishing that number?

    Just to add insult to injury they’re charging $41.95 for the privilege of reading this piece of junk science. I’ll offer to let them kiss my ass in lieu of that fee but I’m sure not going to validate the production of bullshit posing as science with actual money.

  13. stlgonzo says:

    North America’s Largest City Moves to Legalize Pot

  14. DdC says:

    Protect Marijuana Legalization and Fight the DEA

    Thanks to you, marijuana legalization is a reality. But ex-DEA heads are pressuring the Obama administration to overturn the marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington. Don’t let the DEA stand in our way — make a gift today!

    Our opponents are threatened by our progress and will do anything they can to stop the momentum of our movement. But we’re fighting back and leading a campaign to take on the Drug Enforcement Administration.

    Nixon created the DEA as the machine to power his declared war on drugs. It’s a costly, ineffective institution that uses a blunt law enforcement approach to a complex public health problem. It promotes lies about marijuana and other drugs, blocks medical marijuana research and raids marijuana distributors who are operating legally under state law. It even intimidates pain management doctors and is illegally using NSA and CIA programs to spy on Americans.

    We’ve had enough of the DEA and we’re doing something about it. Help us raise $10,000 by this Thursday, October 17. We’re making great progress but we still haven’t heard from you.

    The DEA should not be in the business of determining which drugs are medicines, blocking scientific research, undermining state marijuana laws and using illegal practices in the name of the drug war. And it certainly should not be kicking down thousands of doors, tormenting families and wreaking havoc. Yet the DEA’s out-of-control behavior has been unchecked for 40 years — and is even funded as “essential” during the government shutdown.

    With your help, we’re ready to take on the DEA. We’re working to slash its wasteful budget and building momentum for congressional hearings on its outrageous practices. We have legislation in Congress that would ensure that the DEA can’t interfere in states with marijuana legalization laws. And we’re exposing the appalling nature of the DEA, demanding real oversight and an end to its brutal, counter-productive tactics.

    If you want to end the war on drugs, the DEA needs to be targeted. Help us do it. Donate today.


    Ethan Nadelmann
    Executive Director
    Drug Policy Alliance

  15. Servetus says:

    There’s a news story at El Pais concerning the death of Kiki Camarena that says he was executed by the CIA for trying to seize their narco-money destined for the Contras:

    Two former US law enforcement agents and an ex-CIA contractor have told an American television network that Enrique “Kiki” Camarena – the undercover DEA agent whose 1985 torture and murder in Mexico rocked Washington and opened the largest federal homicide inquiries ever – was actually killed by CIA operatives. Camarena’s murder is considered the most heinous crime ever committed against the DEA in Latin America, and it took place at the height of the US drug war of the 1980s.

    …new revelations suggest that Caro Quintero may have not been the only one responsible for the gruesome murder. Another figure has surfaced in the case, Félix Ismael “El Gato” Rodríguez, a Cuban exile who participated in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. El Gato has also been linked to the 1967 ambush of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Bolivia.


    Camarena discovered this secret web of intelligence operatives mixed with drug traffickers, according to the three men interviewed by Proceso’s Washington correspondent Jesús Esquivel. “The CIA ordered Kiki Camarena’s abduction and torture, and when they killed him, they led us to believe that it was Caro Quintero as part of the cover up of the illegal activities in Mexico,” Jordan told the magazine.

    These CIA-connection claims are now being brought to light by Phil Jordan, the former director of DEA’s powerful El Paso Intelligence Center in Texas; former DEA agent Héctor Berrellez; and Tosh Plumlee, who maintained he was hired to fly covert missions on behalf of US intelligence.

    Messing with the CIA’s drug money. Very dangerous.

  16. EFF Files Brief to Reveal the DEA’s Secret Use of Electronic Surveillance in Criminal Cases

  17. DdC says:

    Ethan Nadelmann ‏@ethannadelmann
    Good to see the Dalai Lama Support Medical Marijuana. Hopefully soon he will understand need for broader legalization.

    The Dalai Lama Supports Medical Marijuana Use
    Abby Ohlheiser theatlanticwire Oct 15, 2013

    “But otherwise if it’s just an issue of somebody (using the drug to have) a crazy mind, that’s not good.”

    Hopefully soon?

    “The commission has come to the conclusion that the moderate use of hemp drugs is practically attended by no evil results at all. … …moderate use of hemp… appears to cause no appreciable physical injury of any kind,…no injurious effects on the mind… [and] no moral injury whatever.”
    ~ Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, 1894

    Kathmandu and the Black Prince

    “The anti-marijuana campaign is a cancerous tissue of lies, undermining law enforcement, aggravating the drug problem, depriving the sick of needed help, and suckering well-intentioned conservatives and countless frightened parents.
    ~ William F. Buckley, Jr. Requiescat In Pace
    Commentary in The National Review, April 29, 1983, p. 495

    PrisonReformMovement ‏@PrisonReformMvt
    Florida considers intervention over incarceration for nonviolent juvenile offenders

    Diane Goldstein ‏@dianemgoldstein u2b
    The surprising story of medical marijuana and pediatric epilepsy

    Toke of the Town ‏@TokeOfTheTown
    Texas congressman signs on to federal bill protecting state marijuana rights.

    • crut says:

      “But otherwise if it’s just an issue of somebody (using the drug to have) a crazy mind, that’s not good.”

      not good? So does that mean neutral, or bad? Does it perhaps depend on the person?

      Actually, the Issue is if people are to be forcibly caged for the action/”crime” of ingesting or otherwise possessing a specific plant. How have the world’s government actions of the last 40-50 years rated on the good/neutral/bad scale in relation to that?

      The Tibetan Buddhist leader, interestingly, didn’t get an official welcome from the Mexican government during his five-day visit to the country. That’s because the government of current president Enrique Pena Nieto would like to keep building friendlier relations with China. China considers the Dalai Lama to be a dangerous separatist — he’s lived in exile for decades. And the country has been known to punish countries, including Mexico, who give the leader an official greeting.

      The choices of men in power can cause an inordinate amount of suffering, do you agree? Punishment of a entire COUNTRY in exchange for Friendliness to a single PERSON, what a world we live in. The inmates truly are running the asylum.

  18. OhutumValik says:

    This is slightly off topic (well, the topic of Nadelmann’s speech, not the broader subject of WoSD), and somewhat dark, but I felt I had to share, because it made me laugh:

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