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Ethan Nadelmann: The TT Interview

The executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance on how drug policies are making Texas’ criminal justice system “horrific,” and who has the most to gain and lose by amending current drug policies.

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Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says the “War on Drugs” is a failed attempt at curbing drug use in America. Nadelmann, who has earned degrees from Harvard University and the London School of Economics, has been referred to as the “point man” for drug policy reform by Rolling Stone magazine. He says his organization isn’t a pro-legalization outfit, but a pro-reform think tank dedicated to reducing the harmful impact of drugs on society and promoting alternatives to the War on Drugs. Based in New York, the Drug Policy Alliance also has offices in New Mexico, New Jersey, California, Colorado and the District of Columbia.

Nadelmann was in Austin recently for a lecture at the University of Texas and talked to the Tribune about why he believes the War on Drugs is a failure, what can be done to improve the criminal justice system and what impact, if any, drug legalization in the United States would have on war-torn Mexico and the rest of Latin America.  

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

TT: What’s wrong with the “War On Drugs?”

EN: It’s costly, ineffective, counterproductive and immoral. Costly in that we’re spending $50 billion to $100 billion a year on the War on Drugs, and the costs of incarceration in America has increased dramatically. Many states that spent three times as much on higher education 20 years ago are now spending more on incarceration. The ineffective? The evidence is pretty clear. On the one hand, what you’re essentially dealing with is a global commodities market. Marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine — those are global commodities markets like alcohol, tobacco, sugar and coffee. You can’t stop it as long as there is a demand. Thirdly, to the extent that the war is justified as one big child-protection act. Look at the evidence and ask, who has the best access to illegal drugs in America today? It’s the young people. Who had the best access 10 or 20 or 30 years ago? The young people. And on the counterproductive piece, look what’s happening in Mexico today. It’s like Chicago during the days of Al Capone and prohibition times 50. It’s terrible. Look at the fact that America has the highest per-capita incarceration rates in the world. These are all the negative consequences.

TT: If you could wave a magic wand and craft your own drug policy to be implemented tomorrow, what would it be?

EN: First, take marijuana out of the criminal justice system. Basically tax it, control it and regulate it, more or less like a strict alcohol policy. Half of all illegal drug users in the jails around the world use no drug but marijuana. So let’s just take that out. Secondly, decriminalize the possession of any drug for personal use, which means nobody goes to jail and nobody gets punished simply from possessing a small amount of a drug, so long as they’re not behind the wheel of a car. That will not dry up the market for the gangsters, but it won’t increase it because the evidence indicates that decriminalizing possession does not increase total amount of consumption. The third thing —  and this is the more radical thing — I would take what the Europeans are doing with heroin maintenance, which began in Switzerland and went to Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, England, Spain and Canada. What they did is took long-term heroin addicts who could not quit, whether through methadone treatment or jails or whatever program, and said “come to a government-run clinic and you can get your pharmaceutical-grade heroin from here. You can’t take it home, but you can come here up to three times a day.”

The important thing to know is that with most drugs, a small minority of users consumes the majorities. For those who are determined to get it, let them get it from a legal source so that all the gangsters have left are the recreational users. That will dry up the black market.

TT: Now taking away the magic wand and looking pragmatically at the current political climate, what is the reality of any dramatic shift in drug policy in the near future?

EN: In the U.S.? There are three interesting things going on right now. The first one is that there is a growing movement to decrease incarceration in state prisons. Roughly two-thirds of the 2.3 million or 2.4 million Americans behind bars today are in state prisons.  Democratic and Republican governors are pushing that so you’re seeing a movement away from incarceration whereas years ago, drug-policy reform was seen as a black sheep of criminal justice prison reform. Now, it’s seen as the cutting edge. The second thing that’s happening is what is going on in Mexico and Central America. There you have calls for breaking the taboo and opening the debate and putting all options on the table, including various drug-war options and decriminalization. That call, which five years ago you were just hearing primarily from activists and intellectuals, and three years ago from former presidents, you are now hearing from current presidents like Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia, Otto Pérez Molina in Guatemala and in some ways, [President Felipe] Calderón in Mexico.  The third thing is the shift in public opinion on marijuana. And that’s taken two forms: one is on medical marijuana. You now have 16 states that have legalized medical marijuana, you have over a million people who have a legal right under state law to use marijuana, you also have something like 70 percent support nationally for legalization of medical marijuana. On the broader legalization of marijuana, that [national support] is also remarkable. In Gallup polling organizations have been asking the same question for 40 years, which is, “Do you support legalizing marijuana use?” In 2005 the number hit a new peak, with 36 percent in favor and 60 percent against. In November 2011, the 36 percent in favor had climbed to 50 percent and the 60 percent against declined to 46 percent.

TT: There is an argument that legalizing drugs would end the violence in Mexico. Is that too simple?

EN: It’s too simple in two respects. It’s highly unlikely that we will see legalization where we treat cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin like alcohol. “Legalization”, in most people’s minds, means “treating like alcohol and cigarettes.”  If, in fact, you treated them all like alcohol it won’t end the violence in Mexico. Mexico has had violence before there were big drug wars and the gangsters are not just involved in the drug dealing. But the fact of the matter is that nothing would do more to reduce the violence than legalization. It’s the single biggest factor. Why? Because the drug market is the No. 1 source of revenue for organized criminals. People say, “Well if you legalize it they will just go in to other types of organized activities.” But the response to that is they are already going in to other types of criminal and legal activities. What you need to expand your business is capital and the easiest and largest source of capital for the gangsters is the illegal drug business. So if you can take away a big chunk of their illegal revenue, it would take away the amount of money they have to go into other businesses.

TT: Does the alcohol lobby have a lot to lose if marijuana were legalized and if so, are they working behind the scenes to stop any legalization or decriminalization effort?

EN: There are four groups to think about: alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceutical and the food industry. The reason each one of them is relevant is because any one of them has the skills to get into the industry if it’s legal, and be much more successful at it than are the people involved in it today. Any of those four are potentially players. They are keeping an eye on what’s going on. I think all four groups are leery of getting identified with the drug-policy reform movement because they don’t want to seem overly eager for the day they can make money.

Also, remember the alcohol industry already sells a product which is at least as dangerous as most of the drugs that are illegal. The tobacco and the pharmaceutical companies already sell a product that is at least as dangerous. You had more people dying last year from a pharmaceutical overdose than heroin overdoses. And if you want to be a little cynical about it, what’s the most popular and powerful drug in America at large? Sugar. It’s all about profit, whether it’s legal or illegal. The alcohol industry, what they don’t know and nobody knows, is whether right now there is a competitive or synergistic effect between alcohol use and marijuana use. Does one substitute for the other? The evidence cuts both ways. It probably leans in favor of marijuana substituting for alcohol, so it leads to some reduction.

TT: If you tell the 9-to-5, white-collar employee that secretly downs a half-bottle of Jack Daniels every night, “Smoke half a joint and drink a tall boy instead, it will be cheaper and healthier,” then doesn’t the alcohol business have a lot to lose?

EN: I know people that who have been enormously successful in their legitimate business lives, that for whom smoking weed was the way they put a cocaine problem behind them. You go to marijuana dispensaries and you’ll meet a lot of people there that were addicted to heroin, cocaine, tobacco, alcohol or whatever, that for whom smoking marijuana daily is the way that they can function in life and put their addictions behind them.

TT: Do you smoke pot?

EN: Yeah, I’ve been an occasional user since I was 18. I’ve never been a daily consumer, occasionally in the evenings and occasionally on the weekends. Same thing with alcohol. I’ll use that more frequently, maybe have a glass of wine or a beer four times a week.

TT: What else would you like to add?

EN: The reason that I am in Texas is that although Texas has an absolutely horrific policy with respect to drugs and prison, more and more people in Texas are pointing to reform. There’s momentum building in Texas, in part because there are so many people behind bars that you can actually make a dramatic difference with some modest reforms in terms of incarceration. The second reason is that when we win an initiative or change a law in California or New York or Connecticut or Washington state, people are interested. But when you say something changed in Texas, state legislators around the country say “Even in Texas? Well then maybe we can look at it in New Jersey or Virginia or Alabama or something like that.” So reforms here have more credibility precisely because of Texas’ reputation.

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