Marajuana Politics and the War on Drugs: An Interview with Ethan Nadelmann


Described by Rolling Stone as the “point man” of drug policy reform efforts and “the true drug czar”, Ethan Nadelmann is widely regarded as the prominent proponent of drug policy reform, both in the States United than abroad. After earning his doctorate in political science from Harvard University, Ethan taught at Princeton University from 1987 to 1994. He later founded and directed the Lindesmith Center (1994-2000) and the Drug Policy Alliance (2000 -2017), during which he and his colleagues have been at the forefront of dozens of successful campaigns to legalize marijuana and advance other alternatives to the war on drugs. His 2014 TED Talk on ending the war on drugs has been viewed more than two million times, with translations into 28 languages. Ethan currently hosts the leading podcast on all things drugs: PSYCHOACTIVE.

Elise Curtin and Alex Fasseas: In a recent episode on your podcast PSYCHOACTIVE, you discussed cannabis reform with House Republican Nancy Mace. Despite Mace’s pro-legalization stance, Republican support remains sparse. First, why is legalization a partisan issue? And second, what do you think is the best argument to convince someone with conservative views to support legalization?

Ethan Nadelmann: On the one hand, there has always been a partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans over the legalization of marijuana, which was largely tied to marijuana’s association with rebellion and cultural opposition in the 1960s-70s. So you always had that gap. On the other hand, among my most passionate allies were the libertarian-leaning Republicans – with the understanding that most of my support base was still on the left. For example, when former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson became one of the first governors to come out strongly in favor of marijuana legalization, he became my great ally on the issue.

Believe it or not, another ally of mine was Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform. His famous line was, “I want to make government so small, you can strangle it in a bathtub.” So he’s a guy I politically disagree with on the vast majority of issues, yet he’s my close ally on drug policy reform. He arranged for me to speak in plenary sessions at several Conservative Political Action Conferences (CPACs), where I would always debate someone on the right. And there were always people in the audience yelling things like, “Get him off stage! or “He works for Soros!” But at the end of the debate, I always received more applause, because all the young conservatives who showed up at CPAC were in favor of legalizing marijuana, and even some of the older, more libertarian people were too.

Over the past decade, we have begun to see a majority of young Republicans and Representatives like Nancy Mace coming out in favor of legalizing marijuana. When you watch the red and purple states — South Dakota, Montana, Arizona — vote to legalize marijuana, you see the divide between Democrats and Republicans narrows. Another example is support for the legalization of medical marijuana, which was once overwhelmingly Democratic with only a handful of Republicans. And then, while Democratic support has gone from 60% to 90%, Republican support has gone down to around 60% over the past few years.

To convince Republicans, I think it really boils down to two arguments: reducing police overreach and potential tax revenue. Specifically, we’d rather the cops focus on true crime instead of arresting young people for weed. And two, we’d rather the government tax and regulate marijuana than let the gangsters make all the money. In nearly every state, these poll-tested messages have won over Democratic and Republican voters.

EC & FA: What are the often overlooked positive or negative externalities that come with marijuana legalization? For example, how could it work as a substitute for other psychoactive substances?

EN: There are two interesting areas of study looking at substitutability with marijuana. One is vis-a-vis alcohol; some studies show that legalization leads to a reduction in alcohol consumption – it’s hard to say how important this is. The second area is opioids; there are now at least 10 studies that suggest early states that legalized medical marijuana had lower rates of opioid overdose deaths. This is likely due to two factors: first, people are trying to substitute opioids with cannabis in order to cope with certain types of pain. The other factor is that cannabis is an enhancer, so patients can take a lower dose of opioids when combined with cannabis and still get the same pain relief effect.

In terms of negative externalities, one of the main arguments against legalizing marijuana is that it can lead to increased use among teens. But what critics fail to take into account is the fact that teenagers already have the best access to marijuana. So even when we started legalizing these products, teenage use did not increase. In fact, some places have even seen a decrease in teenage and college-age users.

Where consumption has increased is among people between 40 and 90; there’s been a fourfold increase in cannabis use by my generation over the past 10 years, and that’s because people are substituting it for alcohol, prescription drugs, sleeping pills, and so on. I know many couples who have been in a monogamous relationship for 20, 30, 40 years where cannabis plays a central role in their ongoing sexual relationship. It can act not so much as a Viagra, but as a way for people to stay connected, to change their context. So I think that’s where we saw real positive susceptibility.

Obviously, advocates – myself included – want to emphasize the benefits and safety of marijuana, but I’ve always felt our credibility was greatest when we recognized from the start that cannabis is a psychoactive drug that can be harmful to people. On the other hand, one could point to the fact that for many people, the worst thing that has ever happened to them as a result of their marijuana use was getting arrested for it. The government, especially the National Institute on Drug Abuse, spends billions of dollars to show the negative harms of marijuana, but it never spends money to show the negative harms of being arrested and incarcerated, even for a few days only, for possession.

EC & AF: What do you consider to be the most significant political achievement of your career so far?

EN: I think the most obvious success was ending marijuana prohibition. I spoke and published in political journals left and right about why we needed to legalize marijuana over 20 years ago. I was very proud to build a broader drug policy reform movement, to bring together disparate groups of people – from conservatives to psychedelic users, to sobriety advocates, to the forces of order and ex-convicts.

My role in marijuana legalization began by leading the first medical marijuana initiative in California in 1996, then taking it to Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Nevada and Maine from 1998 to 2000. This arc from the early 90s to 2016 for me was, I think, the biggest and most remarkable success. From there, I helped build the movement, pushing ballot initiatives to reduce arrests and incarcerations, resulting in over 100,000 people staying out of jail or serving time. shorter. Additionally, in 2000, we hosted the first international conference on preventing overdose deaths, making naloxone more readily available and passing the 911 Good Samaritan laws, which allow drug addicts to access emergency services without fear of being arrested.

EC & AF: Looking to the future, what is the upcoming or current project that excites you the most?

EN: The issue that has really galvanized me in the last few years since I left to lead the Drug Policy Alliance is the debates around e-cigarettes and harm reduction. Evidence shows that if you take an adult smoker who is addicted to cigarettes and has been unable to quit and switch them to e-cigarettes, you reduce their health risk by around 95%. And that’s because most of the harm from tobacco comes not from the nicotine, but from the burnt particles and carcinogenic tars that can lead to heart and lung disease, and possibly death.

On the other hand, the nicotine consumed in an e-cigarette harms your health relatively little. You can take nicotine for the rest of your life, and there may be a cardiovascular risk as you get older, but overall it’s not that dangerous as a substance. This means that if the 40 million Americans currently addicted to cigarettes were to switch to e-cigarettes, it would represent one of the greatest public health advances in American history. Ultimately, however, the reason we can’t have tobacco harm reduction is that most people and policy makers see it as important child protection law.

This is therefore the question on which I am most excited. And I think it’s possible that within a generation the war on drugs will no longer be about marijuana, cocaine, heroin, etc. It will concern tobacco.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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