Who We Are and Why We Fight: "People Who Do Drugs, and People Who Don't, Will End the War on Drugs"

Ethan Nadelmann electrified the audience with this comprehensive and provocative address at the 2011 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in November  in downtown Los Angeles. At the conference, anti-drug war activists from all over the world, and all walks of life, converged to plan and discuss the movement to end the drug war. Former police officers with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), and representatives from the NAACP and other organizations  joined formerly incarcerated drug offenders, addicts, and individuals as prominent as the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia for three days of collaboration and education.

Let me tell you something. We are all the future of this movement. We are all the future. You know, it is the young, the old, and the in-between. The black, the white, and the in-between. The gay, the straight, and the in-between. The drug users, and the non-drug users, and the in-between.  

It really is a remarkable moment right now. Some of us have been fighting this for many years, but every one of us who’s been in this for many years knows the same thing as those of us for whom this is a new thing -- which is, we have just begun to fight. We have just begun to fight. Because the fact of the matter is, what we are involved in here, inescapably, is a multi-generational struggle. This is a multi-generational struggle. There is no 18th Amendment of drug prohibition that is simply going to be repealed with a 21st. There is no Berlin Wall of drug prohibition that is going to come tumbling down like that and transform the world. We have to push, and we have to push, and we have to build, and we have to be smart. We have no alternative.  

Now, we also know that the unexpected can happen when you least expect it. We know that a monstrous empire like the Soviet Union can crumble when nobody thought it was possible. And we know that a black man with a name like Barack Obama can become president when nobody thought that was possible. We know that the inconceivable can happen, and part of what is incumbent upon us to do, is to keep envisioning the future. It’s envisioning a future in which drugs are going to be as much a part of our lives as ever, not because that is a good thing or a bad thing, but because that is simply the way it is. What we can change is not the realities or the existence of drugs in our society. What we can change, somewhat, is the harms that are associated with these drugs. But what we can change fundamentally is how the government and we, the people, deal with the reality of drugs.  

Now, it’s hard sometimes, as an American, to look at this thing with no blinders. It’s embarrassing to represent a nation that has less that 5% of the world’s population, but has 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. It is humiliating to live in a country which has increased, by ten fold, the number of people locked up on drug charges since 1980. It is horrific to exist in a society that has allowed a quarter of a million of our fellow citizens to die of HIV-AIDS because we would not embrace the commonsense and scientific approaches that were established and implemented elsewhere.   

In the country of the bill of rights, to see the drug war being used to eviscerate fundamental freedoms is an embarrassment. To preach to others about the significance of human rights, when we ourselves do not know to respect those in our own society, is the ultimate height of hypocrisy. That is our tragic exceptionalism -- that we have allowed this issue to become a vehicle for oppressing the poor, the vulnerable, and people of color -- in a way that almost no society has ever done, that did not have institutionalized racism on the laws, on the books of its society.  

But, you know, we're making progress. We are making progress. We are making progress. When that global commission on drug policy stood up earlier this year, and former presidents stood up, and they said, “Time for change! Time for the legalization of marijuana! Time to roll back the horrors of the drug war! Time to advance in harm reduction,” They were saying and doing the right thing, and they were catalyzing the debate around the world that began to penetrate, not just America and Europe, but into Asia and Africa.  

When old drug warriors like Jesse Jackson and Charlie Rangel switch sides and want to link arms with us, that’s a form of progress. When people show up to this hall in numbers that have never happened before, that too is progress. When Barack Obama got elected and in the first year of his administration, somewhat to my surprise, he made good on his campaign commitments. In that first year, what did he do? He did, in fact, roll back the oppression of federal agents, in terms of medical marijuana. He did, in fact, go forward with Congress, finally after many decades, legalizing funding for needle exchange. He did assist in rolling back the harsh and racially unjust crack powder penalties. That was progress.   

It's progress when we begin to see America turning, and we see fewer people locked up in state prisons, last year and this year, than we have after 30 years of increases. It’s progress that not just Democratic governors, but Republican governors embrace prison reform; whether it's for budgetary reasons or moral reasons or whatever. It’s progress when right-wingers stand up and create a right on crime initiative, and say that we have gone too far in incarceration in our country. It’s progress when we look around Europe and we see the Portuguese experiment getting more and more notice, and we see the Danes moving forward in this way and Norwegians in that way, and the Poles in that way and the Israelis in that way. It’s progress when people start talking about the human rights of drug-users in Asia and in Latin America. It is progress when people stand up and with a bold social movement leader like Javier Sicilia can speak a movement about transforming drug policies that is entirely consistent with what people on the right are saying as well -- the former presidents and prime ministers of Mexico and other countries as well. It is progress when we can force the American bureaucracies to begin to shift direction in all of this.  

But, of course, that progress is too little. Too slow. Barack Obama... Barack Obama, we needed you, man. We needed you. We needed you to step up there. We needed you to do the right thing, and it looked like you were going to do it, and what’s happened? Now, I’m not going to blame it all on you, when the Republicans take over congress and you’ve got a guy like Lamar Smith trying to come up with the latest crazy drug law idea. When you’ve got state legislatures and republican leaders out allying with Democratic leaders to ban people from receiving unemployment benefits because they smoked a joint. When you’ve got a new drug emerging, and people have got to ban K2 or salvia or bath salts. I mean, don’t they have better things to do already?  

It’s like Adam said, we live in a world in which there is not just the continuing visions of a prison industrial complex desperately defending its own interests, of prison guard unions and private prison builders, and the worst of all... the worst of all the drug warriors, I believe, are the prosecutors. The district attorneys and the U.S. Attorneys. You know, more and more police kind of get it. They keep going along with it. It’s part of what they do; they’ve got to bust people; they want the excuse to do it. They’ve got the laws. But the growth of our allied organization, LEAP, is ample evidence that more and more law enforcement is seeing the light on this stuff. The people in charge of running prison populations, they know they’re overflowing with people who don’t belong behind bars, and more of them are beginning to say we need change. The judges are saying, “What are we doing? We’re just rubber stamping horrific sentences that have no justice in a democratic society.”  But the DAs and the prosecutors, they are out control in American society today. They are out of control. If there is anybody who is the enemy of drug policy reform today, with a few brave exceptions throughout the country, it is the DAs and the prosecutors, and they have to be called out.  

When they believe they need a mandatory minimum sentence, why? Not because that mandatory minimum sentence is justified, but because it moves the power of sentencing from the judge into their hands. Why do they want that mandatory minimum? So they can take some innocent person caught up on the edges of a conspiracy, so they can take a girlfriend of a drug dealer, so they can take a person that’s done almost nothing at all, and threaten them with a 5 or 10 or 20 year sentence in order to become an informant and give the state what it needs. There are so many of us who see ourselves as Progressives in America and we continue to believe that government can do well if only it had the right leadership.  

We also understand the great evil that government can do -- the impotent democratic society, the reputedly democratic society of the United States of America can do.  That when you fit with this handle and legislators make these laws, and when they let prosecutors run rampant, that leads to injustice of the sort that we see in America today. Look what’s happening with respected people being incarcerated for 5 to 20 years for possession of a small amount of white powder substance. Look what’s happening with state laws on medical marijuana that are being overwhelmed by federal law enforcement authorities that say it’s all against federal law and we’re going to do whatever we do regardless of public opinion, public health, public safety, public decency. Because we have the power and we will exercise it.  

We need you, Barack Obama, to reel that back in. And we need all of you and all of us to put the pressure on. The fact of the matter is, if they’re doing their own thing, it’s because we’re not getting powerful enough. Part of what we have to do is not just become respected, but feared. We have to grow and grow and grow. We’ve got to get smarter and smarter and smarter. Now, what does that mean?

It means that as we take the next stage of evolution as a movement, we have to keep certain things in mind.  Whenever I hear somebody say, “Why can’t we all just get along?” I say to them, "Shut the hell up." What do you mean, “Get the hell along?” We’re people. We’re human beings. We’re taking on the government. We don’t agree on everything. We’re going to fight. We’re going to struggle. Over tactics and strategies. Over ends and means. Over girlfriends and boyfriends. And credit and money and everything else. But, what’s going to make us more powerful and more effective is our ability to manage those conflicts like adults. We need to bring to this movement the passion of great lovers and the wisdom of old souls. That is what’s called upon for us. We need to fight with one another, but we need to keep our eye on the prize. We need to remember where we’re going. Right? We can’t let ourselves be separated or distinguished because of our different views.  

Some of you have heard me say this before. Many of you have not. To those that have, I apologize, but when people ask, “Who is this movement? Who is this drug policy reform movement?” And some of them will say, “I know who all of you are. You’re just the people who want to get high, smoke your weed and don’t care.” You know what I say to them? “There’s a little truth to that.” Because many of us are the people that do want to get high. And we do enjoy marijuana and that marijuana's been good to us, not bad to us. We are the people whose lives have been enriched by the psychedelic experiences of LSD and mushrooms. And we are the people who have even figured out how to play with the more dangerous drugs without being caught up by them. We are the people who say if this is my pleasure or this is my vice, then it’s no damn business of the government or my employer what I put in my body, and there is no basis for treating me like a common criminal. Get the government out of my face and my boss out of my face.  

But do you know who else we are? We are also the people who hate drugs. We are the people who have seen the worst that drugs can do. We are the people living with addiction in our lives, in our own families and in our own communities. We are the people who have lost children to an overdose, and a brother or a sister to HIV, and a cousin to Hep C, and whose parents were alcoholics or drug addicts. We are the people who have seen the gateway theory manifest itself in our own lives and families. We are the people that wish we could have the drug-free society, the drug-free world, but who know that that is not possible, and who know that no matter how much we hate drugs, that the War on Drugs is not the way to deal with the reality.  

And, you know what else we are? We’re the people who don’t give a damn about drugs. We’re the people who don’t consider ourselves drug-users. I mean, my kid may be on Ritalin, my wife’s on Prozac, my dad’s on Viagra, but we don’t see ourselves as drug users. What do you care about? We care about fundamental freedom and preserving the Bill of Rights in America. What do we care about? We care about ending the violence and degradation and corruption in Mexico and other countries that have been harmed immensely by the drug war. What do we care about? About ending the racial injustice and the class injustice of the War on Drugs in our society. What do we care about? About treating addiction as a health issue. What do we care about? Individual freedom and human rights and civil rights and all of the important values that we care about. And we target the War on Drugs because it is the single, most vicious thing undermining the values that we care about deeply.  

So, who are we, this emerging drug policy reform movement? We are the people who love drugs. We are the people who hate drugs. And we are 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 this reality in our society. When people who are embracing 5 to 10 to 20 years in recovery can stand up and say legalize marijuana; when people who have lost somebody to a drug overdose can stand up and say end the incarceration; when people who believe that marijuana is the greatest medicine in the world can stand up to the doctors and the people suffering from pain for whom marijuana is not the answer, for whom an opium drug is the answer; then we become a movement. When the people on the left and the people on right; when the Gavin Newsoms and the Gavin Johnsons can stand together, then we are a movement. When the young and the old stand up together, then we are a movement. And when we can envision a future, a future not in which our leftist ideals and our rightist ideals are the ones that vanquish, but where we envision a future in which we represent the radical center; in which we represent the people who believe in the fundamental decency of mankind, who believe that government can occasionally do good, but always has to be held accountable. When we understand that nobody should be discriminated against or amongst because of what they put in their body; when we understand that our love or hatred of drugs cannot divide us -- it’s all about fighting the oppression of the government and of the popular mindset that oppresses us -- then we are a movement.  

When we can envision a future... Sometimes I look at the societies that have fought wonderful fights against dictatorship. I look at South Africa and I look at the southern cone of Latin America and other places. And what happened when truth and justice went out? What did they do? Did they massacre the people who had oppressed them? No. They set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. I dream of the day when we have the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. And when the people who are participating in the War on Drugs will be brought before, to confront their victims; the people whose lives they destroyed because they were just part of the system and just doing their job. And when they be brought to confront what it is they did -- not with a threat, death or treating them as they treated others -- but we understand that we need to evolve towards a different future. And do you know who would be the advisors and consultants on those commissions? It will be the brave men and women of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). It will be the law enforcement officers who fought this battle for years and came to the realization that it wasn’t right.  

Now, of course, some people say, you know, “How do we do this?” Don’t we ultimately have to control drugs? Don’t we have to control them at the source? Look what’s going on right now. What is the future of drugs in our society and elsewhere? To some extent of course it’s the pharmaceutical drugs. I mean, we’re always going to have marijuana and cocaine and the opiates and the hallucinogens, right? They’re not going away. They’ve been around for thousands of years in those cases, and people are going to keep loving them and getting in trouble with them, right? The Center For Disease Control just came out yesterday and said that now, for the first time in history, more people die of an accidental overdose involving a drug, typically a pharmaceutical drug, than from an automobile accident. And our government can’t think of anything better to do than to crack down on pain mills this and pharmaceuticals that. All they can think about is reverting to supply control, supply control, punishment, punishment, punishment. They can’t think of anything else.  

You know, sometimes I think we might have a good modern way of dealing with drugs. There’s this substance out there. This substance, it’s a substance that almost every one of us consumes. It’s a substance that fills our life with joy and can also fill it with immense pain. It’s a substance we can’t live with and we can’t live without. It’s a substance that’s woven into our society, so it’s impossible to imagine a future without it. It is one that we use in moderation and one which so many of us are addicted to. What is that substance? The automobile.  

Now think about it. What has happened in the last 20 or 30 years? The number of automobiles on the road has increased, by what, 50%? The number of drivers by 30%, 40%? The number of miles driven, by 50 or 100%.  All the things going on; more cars, more drivers, more miles. Now, the conventional model would say that’s going to be more automobile related problems. But, what’s happened during that same 30 years? The number of  people that have died on roads has dropped. The amount of pollution being put into the air has dropped. The amount of injuries happening has dropped. It seems to me that automobiles, while not a perfect model, is an example of acknowledging the inevitable reality that something can proliferate in our society, can become more and more common and more and more used, but nonetheless, through intelligent policies, we can reduce the harms that are being caused, both to ourselves and to others. That automobiles provide a wonderful example of a harm reduction strategy.

Whether we like it or not, our children and our grandchildren are going live in world with far more psychoactive drugs than we have today. We are going to have Prozac generation 12 and Viagra generation 4 and Ritalin generation 23 and maybe little combinations of all of them, right? We can choose for our own selves to be pharmacological Ludites and abstain from all these things, but w cannot mandate the the government require all of us to abstain from all these things or else we are replicating and continuing the War on Drugs into the future with a new threat. We have to understand that when we fight against the War on Drugs, we have to be clear about our principles and not, all of a sudden, be caught by surprise when something comes out of nowhere and  abandon our core principles and apply the same horrific values of the War on Drugs to this new threat.  

Sometimes I think about what happened to the inner-cities in America in the 1980s, when crack cocaine came along, right? The crack craze and the fear of the people who were poor and black and oppressed, and they saw this stuff coming. And what did they do? The leaders -- the Jesse Jacksons, the Charlie Rangels, the church leaders, but even the average people -- what did they do? They said we need more treatment. Yeah, we need more treatment. We need more investment in our communities. But you know what else we need? We need more police. We’ve got to arrest those people selling those drugs. We’ve got to arrest those people using those drugs. Even if they are us, we have to do that. They called for more law enforcement and prisons. And what happened was an unprecedented incarceration of people of color in our society that made incarceration rates in South Africa look petty in comparison; that the War on Drugs makes incarceration rates of the Soviet Gulags in the 30s, 40s, and 50s look petty in comparison. We built prisons to house millions of Americans, mostly people of color. We shifted from inner-cities to upstate. The largest housing program in America became, not building housing for families in the inner-cities, but building upstate prisons, and employing undereducated white prison guards to guard undereducated black convicts.   The lesson of that is, it is always a mistake to call in our oppressors to save ourselves from ourselves. It is always a mistake to call in our oppressors to save ourselves from ourselves.  

Why are we here? I know some of you may disagree. Some of you say, “Let’s legalize everything.” And some of may say, “Legalize nothing. Let’s just treat addiction as a health issue.” The way I see it, we’re just trying to move the public consciousness and public policy down the spectrum. We are trying to move it down the spectrum from this side of the War on Drugs in Singapore, Malaysia, China, Indonesia and the standard American policy of locking up and drug tests and torture over here, down this end. Now what’s down in this end? Well, at the far end, of course, is the free market. It is Milton Friedman’s wet dream. It is the way of dealing with drugs and, you know, true freedom. But where the debates need to move, where the policies need to move, is down this spectrum. I look forward to the day when the most vicious fights --  the ones that are most consequential for drug policy in America -- are the ones that happen among ourselves, when we are fighting at this part of the spectrum, between those who are saying make it all legal except for K2 and those that are saying harm reduction, harm reduction, harm reduction, we can’t let go of all prohibitionist controls, too many addictions to officially decriminalize, but do not allow the Marlboro-ization or the Budweiser-ization of drugs in America. Those are the fights we need to have. Those are the fights we know, based on all the science, the evidence, that history suggests, that the best drug policies are the ones that lay at this end of the spectrum.  

Part of what makes this challenging is that our movement for freedom and social justice is, in fact, different, in some respects, from others. One of the things that makes it different  -- and we have be frank and honest when dealing with -- is that ours, unlike the movements for civil rights, gay rights and women’s rights, involves a commodity. It involves something that people can and do and will make money from. It means that when we fight for people to take drugs and not be discriminated based on that; when we fight for the freedom of people to  grow their own medicine, their own cannabis or whatever it might be; when we fight for the rights of indigenous peoples to grow coca or opium as part of their societies, it’s also recognizing that when we’re fighting for those freedoms, we’re also fighting, in some respect, for something that is a commodity. It is a commodity.

Look at what’s happening today, and part of what’s going on with medical marijuana, is that a lot of people are making money. Some of them ethically, and some of them, not so ethically, from marijuana, from medical marijuana. We trying to bring this stuff above ground and we have to do it in responsible ways. We can see what’s going on in The Netherlands now, where we have the right wing government trying to shut down the coffee shops, that they’ve hovered in that middle ground for so many years, but they never legalized the thing entirely. They never fully regulated it. They kept it in a decriminalized -- not just possession -- but they decriminalized market, retail places. That’s inherently unstable. That’s where we are with medical marijuana today.   It means that as we try to move this thing forward, we have to bolster our defenses. We have to be smart. We have to call out the entrepreneurs who are acting unethically in this world. We can’t give the excuse to the federal prosecutors and others to target the whole industry. We can’t have the bad role models who become the symbol that the opposition waves in our face. It's one of those challenges that we have have to be honest with --  that this is a fight for freedom and decency and human rights --  but with this commercial element, it needs to be managed responsibly.

 I don’t care whether it’s for profit or not for profit, or these sorts of things. That can be decided locally. And we’re not going to have the luxury that happened with the repeal of alcohol prohibition. With the repeal of alcohol prohibition, it can go like that. And many of the people who made the most money selling alcohol illegally can become the legal sellers. It happened quickly. But we’re going to go through this -- we are going through this transitional stage -- where we have no alternative than to manage this stuff as best as we possibly can.   Every time I look around me, I say something about this struggle: It’s getting more complicated. It’s getting more complicated. The oppression is as real and as horrific as ever but it’s getting more complicated. We’re drafting ballot initiatives and we’re fighting over where we compromise on principle and policy and which interests get represented. We’re fighting over legislation and we have to battle over this. We’re fighting over resources. We have to keep making these judgments in the best possible way we can. Building a movement, taking it to the next stage, means not being distracted by the money that can be made or burnout or the fights that can happen.  

Now, I’m inspired when I look at what’s happening with the Occupy Wall Street movement. I'm inspired when I see what's happening with the Arab Spring, when something that was as inconceivable as the fall of the Soviet Union or as inconceivable as a black man being elected president, is happening around us. I know that we can keep moving, but I also know that, because of the nature of our movement, we will never be able to put people on the streets the way the Civil Rights Movement did. We don’t have that capacity to do it. We have to be savvy. We have to be wily. But the fact of the matter is, we are standing on the shoulders and following in the footsteps of other movements for social justice and individual freedom. The fact of the matter is that we are like the movements for civil rights and gay rights and for the abolition of slavery, indeed. The fact of the matter is that we are fighting for fundamental freedoms and fighting against entrenched interest. The fact of the matter is that the economics of the argument are on our side, whereas the powerful economic interests are on the other side. The fact of the matter is that the only way we ultimately win this battle is with what may be the greatest challenge of all, and the greatest enemy of all, is the one that lies within. Whenever we doubt our own convictions; whenever we believe, on some level, that our struggle for the human rights of the people who use drugs is somehow a lesser struggle than struggle for civil rights or women’s rights or gay rights or other movements for social justice and freedom, we undermine our own efficacy and power.  

You know, the older generation of women fighting for women’s rights, so many of them kept it in their own consciouses that on some level they weren't truly  equal to men. That for black men and women fighting for equal rights and civil rights, who believed on some level that they weren’t fully their equal because they were brought up in the days of Jim Crow or slavery. They fought for the struggle and they fought, but some level deep down they couldn’t buy into it. It's a story, of course, of Moses and the Israelites leaving Egypt and slavery and getting caught up by the golden calf because on some level after generations of slavery, the first generations could not embrace what freedom and independence truly meant. They had to grasp onto the old fears of the past because that’s what had been impregnated in their brains as they were children. We have to free ourselves of that.  

And we know that if there is one quality that is required of us more than any other -- more than the intellect, more than courage -- it is the quality of empathy. The only way we win... The only way we win... We don’t have the option of beating up the opposition. They got the guns and the prisons and they’ve still got the laws and they've got prejudices and they’ve got the fears. They have so much on their side that they can just stomp all over us. We win when we extract every ounce of empathy we have within ourselves, when we can embrace and open our hearts to the law enforcer who has done his job -- sometimes courageously for 20 years -- and where we have been the victim and can reach into them and appeal to them and find the language that will bring them over here. We show our empathy and we win when we can reach and embrace a person who has struggled with addiction in their families and lost people to horrible drug fatalities and hates drugs, when we can reach over and explain and feel deep down people’s suffering around drugs. To the extent that we are seen as people who are pro drug, we cannot win. It is only  understanding, deeply profoundly, the fears that exist around drugs -- every parents' fear for their kid and everybody’s fear for the loss of control of drugs and everybody’s desire to control their environment, and everybody’s desire to build that moat between their children and those drugs -- it is only when we extract the empathic dimension of ourselves that we win.  

Now, this is your job, for the next three days, if you’re a marijuana activist, go to panels that have nothing to do with marijuana. If you’re a harm reduction activist, go to panels that have nothing to do with harm reduction. If you’re an American activist, go to panels that have nothing to do with America. Go and merge out. I want you to be leaving this place transformed. I want each one of you to be starting from what brought you to this movement -- whatever piece it was -- and going on to the next level.   Because we are a movement that is going to grow and grow and grow. We are going to become more and more powerful. We are going to end the prison. We’re going to use the economic arguments. We’re going to use every argument at our disposal.  And we are going to fight, fight, fight for the principle that nobody, but nobody, deserves to be punished for what we put in our bodies that causes no harm to others. That nobody but nobody deserves to be harmed for what we put into our bodies. This is a fight for freedom and sovereignty and dignity. This is a fight for justice. You are, we are, the vanguard of this movement. Let’s change the world.   Thank you very much.  

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