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In the Face of the Drug War's Total Failure, Can California's Legalization Battle Kick-Start a Movement for Change?

Drug prohibition is remarkably ineffective, costly and counter-productive -- it has cost people their lives, and put millions behind bars. Is the tide turning?

Prohibition has failed -- again. Drug prohibition has proven remarkably ineffective, costly and counter-productive. 500,000 people are behind bars today for violating a drug law – and hundreds of thousands more are incarcerated for other prohibition-related violations. There is a smarter approach usually called harm reduction. Reducing the number of people who use drugs is not nearly as important as reducing the death, disease, crime, and suffering associated with both drug misuse and failed policies of prohibition.

Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the DRUG POLICY ALLIANCE, the leading organizations in the United States promoting alternatives to the war on drugs, grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights. He received his BA, JD, and PhD from Harvard, and a Master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics. He authored COPS ACROSS BORDERS and co-authored POLICING THE GLOBE: Criminalization and Crime Control in International Relations.

McNally: How did drug policy reform become your life’s work?

Nadelmann: It had something to do with my growing up in a fairly traditional Jewish family, going off to college, smoking marijuana, enjoying it, and wondering why people were getting arrested for it. I was reading John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty at the time, and I wondered why we were criminalizing something so much less dangerous than alcohol. In graduate school, I ended up writing a dissertation on the internationalization of crime and law enforcement. Then at the peak of drug war hysteria In the late 80’s, I wrote a piece in Foreign Policy magazine, saying that most of what we identified as part and parcel of the drug problem were the results of a failed prohibitionist policy. Shortly thereafter the Mayor of Baltimore, Kurt Schmoke, said much the same thing, and we got a lot of media play. One thing led to another, and finally to my running the Drug Policy Alliance, and becoming deeply involved in efforts to change drug laws both in the US and around the world.

McNally: You’ve said that this is a multi-generational campaign. Why do you say that?

Nadelmann: I was one of those weird kids who if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d say a history professor. I became a professor of politics, but very interested in the history of social movements. Although sometimes things happen far more rapidly than one could ever believe -- the repeal of alcohol prohibition or the fall of the Soviet Union -- a lot of the biggest changes take multiple generations.

My role models are the movements for gay rights, civil rights, women’s rights, even the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century. Every one of these has been multi-generational. Every one of them started with people asserting what sounded like quixotic principles -- about the fundamental equality of people no matter the color of their skin, the fundamental equality of men and women, the fundamental equality of people regardless of their sexual identification. Our core principle is that people should not be discriminated against or punished solely for what they put into their bodies, absent harm to others. And I believe this principle will ultimately prevail just as other once radical principles of freedom and equality ultimately triumphed.

I’ve been involved for close to a generation now, and I increasingly see myself mentoring and handing off the baton to a new generations of activists. I see this movement morphing and having the same sorts of internal struggles that other movements have had; it’s an inevitable part of the process. But I feel a sense of momentum right now. Those other movements ultimately succeeded far more than they failed. To the extent that I have an optimistic view of historical evolution, I think the same thing is going to be true with the drug policy reform movement.

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