The Relentless War on Drug Users Is Escalating Violence in the US: It's Time for Harm Reduction

Ethan Nadelmann is one of a handful of marvelously charismatic and motivating speakers within the liberal and progressive universe. He talks creatively and emphatically about race, class, gender, corruption, power, human rights, immigration and the devastating impact of prison-industrial complex on all aspects of society, all progressive touchstones. Yet relatively few people know who he is, or follow his efforts. Why? Because he has devoted his life to transforming America's attitudes and laws about drugs, which is no easy task, and often a thankless one.

There exists a complex, almost paradoxical attitude toward drug use and the ramifications of "drug war" repression among many progressives. Even Baby Boomers, many who successfully navigated a journey through their own drug experimentation as they came of age, often overreact to the possibilities of their own childrens' experimentations with drugs. And in the case of our last three presidents, all who used drugs, the consistent stance is to go out of their way to avoid any acknowledgement of any positive role that drugs play in our society, or even seriously consider a less destructive approach, which would be the legalization and regulation of drugs. President Obama, who has been quite honest about his personal drug use, nevertheless has been somewhat dismissive about even modest reforms concerning pot -- a drug far less dangerous than the alcohol and cigarettes, which pervade our society and generate billions of advertising dollars to maintain dependencies and widespread social use.

The way our country deals with illegal drug use -- a behavior that has been with humans since the beginning of time -- has truly become a civil rights and human rights issue in our midst, as millions are arrested each year in an overwhelmingly racist, and uniquely American crusade against personal choice and liberty. Hundreds of thousands are in jail on drug charges, even for simply smoking pot or possessing it in the wrong part of the country, or being tricked by cops, as young people frequently are in New York City. Meanwhile we can attribute much of the development of the surveillance state, the huge allocation of funds to combat issues of fear, the massive numbers of security personnel we have in our midst, mainly on two things -- 9/11 and the "war on drugs."

On the other hand, we are currently at the highest point of most the open debate about drug use in 30 years, and polls show that general acceptance among the people on the issues of cannabis is at an all-time high. Majorities in many parts of the country -- of course not the South -- are in favor of legalizing pot possession for personal use. Medical marijuana is now available in a patchwork of laws in 15 states. And perhaps most noteworthy, the media has suddenly changed course and drugs are no longer being demonized. News media narratives often now share the positive stories about pot, leaving the pot critics the last paragraph or comment in order to have a balanced story. The popular cable program Weeds is likely partially responsible for this shift.

Recently, and remarkably there was a cover story in Fortune which made the case that pot was already legal in parts of the U.S., due to the massive medical pot business in California. That article had a special focus on Oakland, California, which many consider the pot capitol of the country. Another comprehensive article and video appeared in Newsweek  called "Welcome to Potopia," about the remarkable successes of Richard Lee in Oakland, who has established Oaksterdam University to teach the responsible cultivation of cannabis, as part of his socially conscious mini pot empire (I wrote about and interviewed Lee here).

It is Lee who is causing consternation in California cannabis circles for his determination to place on the 2010 ballot a pot tax initiative, which would have the result of legalizing pot for the personal user, and bring billions of dollars into the California coffers, when the state is reeling from massive unemployment and an unprecedented budget gap. There is a worry that CA citizens aren't ready for a legal pot vote, and concern about a possible backlash. But the financially well-off Lee clearly has the resources to qualify for the ballot, which means that the entire pot establishment in California is going to have to get real and get behind the initiative, to make sure it doesn't show weakness in the overall drug reform effort.

Nadelmann's Conference

But back to the under-appreciated Nadelmann. Now don't feel sorry for Ethan -- he runs a highly polished national organization, with crack staff around the country and budgets well north of $5 million a year, and is without peer in the influence he wields on the issue. His main benefactor is multi-billionaire George Soros, who sits on his board and funded the origins of Nadelman's current group, The Drug Policy Alliance. And Nadelmann gets mainstream publicity with the best of them.

But yes, Nadelmann often seems to be swimming upstream. He presented this summer at the Campaign for America's Future Conference and gave hands down the best speech of the day. When it was over, people clapped politely and went on to discuss how to elect liberals to Congress, what's next with the Apollo Alliance, why Obama's economic advisors lacked any progressives, and any number of things, and probably quickly forgot Nadelmann's clarion call to make the drug war a progressive issue worthy of the key movements of our time for equality and social justice. (AlterNet printed the text of that speech by Nadelmann, which you can read here).

This weekend, Nadelmann's organization, the Drug Policy Alliance, is holding its bi-annual gathering in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where several hundred drug experts and activists from around the world are gathered to grapple with an often dizzying array of issues. Nadelmann set the tone of optimism and increasing confidence by saying "the wind is at our back. We are making progress like we have never seen before. There will be some some setbacks, and sometimes the wind will disappear, but this is our time and we have to move hard and fast."

Nadelmann's opening talk that was particularly instructive because it raised the issues, and contradictions that the drug reform movement faces in seeking success. Nadelmann drew on his vast knowledge of the history of alcohol prohibition as an apt analogy for some of our present dilemmas. Nadelmann reminded his audience that the 18th Amendment truly failed because it was so effective "in empowering organized crime, violence and corruption, overflowing jail cells, and creating criminals as role models for kids." Prohibition ended with the depression, when everyone was hurting for funds, and it ended with effective work from Women for the Appeal of Prohibition. But it was fundamentally the depression that created the conditions for the first time repeal of a constitutional amendment in U.S. history.

An obvious point of comparison is that today, the U.S, has had its most serious economic contraction since the "Great Depression," and many of the same conditions of enormous resources invested in the drug war, in jailing hundreds of thousands, and organized crime causing large-scale violence is part of the environment. But one big difference is that the violence is coming from Mexico, and spreading across the U.S. rapidly and dangerously.

The most powerful leverage pot legalization advocates have is the enormous amount of money being made by the Mexican drug cartels. The big bucks are made by growing pot over vast portions of federal land in the West, and selling it all across America. The result are brutal wars between competing cartels and with the Mexican government with unspeakable violence that has torn the fabric of Mexico asunder, leaving many with the feeling that the country could be turning into a narco-state. Nadelmann made this point by saying not only should we be considering the violence and warfare in Iraq, and Afghanistan but also in Mexico, where the violence has spread through Texas and the Southwest, where many drug cartel leaders migrate for more safety.

In considering addressing the ramifications of changing the mindset of Americans to more accept the safe use of drugs in their midst, requires leaders and elected officials to come to understand the fundamental principle of most of the drug reform efforts -- a concept called harm reduction -- where society's approach to dealing with drugs, like many things, should be about reducing the negative impact on the community and on individuals, as opposed to prohibition, which causes myriad problems and unintended consequences. In this case, the massive violence from Mexico -- Nadelmann say that some claim that as much as 60% of the money going into the cartels is from U.S. pot business -- is the root of the problem. Thus, and sometimes I am not clear why so many people do not understand this most fundamental concept: if pot was legal in the U.S, if prohibition were not the priority, but harm reduction and safe regulation took its place, the key source of revenue fueling the violence in Mexico and increasingly in the U.S. would be cut off. The cartels would be broken. Can we all think about this and what it means?

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