Remarks at New York's Farewell to Ethan Nadelmann

Editor's Note: The following is a speech given on Wednesday, April 26, on the occasion of Ethan Nadelmann's last week at the Drug Policy Alliance, which he founded.

My name is asha bandele and I have been a member and employee of the Drug Policy Alliance for 12 years, and I’ve been asked to represent our team tonight, many of whom are in the room and all of whom you should know. They are truly magnificent.

But I will share with you that as we’re doing tonight—what we’ve done a great deal of since the end of January when we learned that Ethan had chosen to begin a new phase in his life—is spend a lot of time looking inward, considering what’s next on the horizon, what should be next. And this is right and smart and proper. But I want to talk for just a little bit about what isn’t happening, and right outside these doors and well beyond them.

In New Mexico and in Washington, D.C., tonight, no law enforcement personnel is bursting into someone’s home to seize it. Or their car. Or the money they need to feed their family simply because they were suspected, though not even convicted, of being involved in a drug crime.

In the State of New Jersey, not one person tonight will be ordered to pay bail—and then have to sit in jail because they cannot afford it—after being arrested for a low-level drug offense because as per that state’s constitution cash bail has been virtually wiped out!

In cities and small towns across this nation tonight, more than 1,700 people are not wondering if they will ever get out of prison because of the pressure that demanded our last president be the first in 50 years to leave office with a federal prison population that is smaller than it was on the day he was sworn in.

In Colorado, no mother or father is losing their parental rights tonight simply because he or she or they cultivated a marijuana plant.

In our own New York City tonight, 30,000 people are not being arrested for marijuana, and in more than 20 states across the nation, including this one, tonight, no one is going to jail because they called 911 to save a friend or loved one from an overdose death.

And in the state of California, there are mothers from San Diego to San Francisco, many of whom look like me, who are not fearing tonight that their precious child is being arrested for marijuana possession.

And all those things are not happening because a generation ago, a young professor from Princeton University believed that America’s drug laws were a horrific tool that was being used to harm people across the nation, and he said "Not on my watch," and George Soros took a leap a faith on this scrappy, pushy, brilliant young professor who had never run an organization but who had grown a mighty vision at a time when few dared share it with him. It was a time of an omnibus crime bill that was being supported on both sides of the aisle. A time when most Americans did not believe marijuana should be legalized and regulated. 

Tonight, my daughter, born in 2000, cannot conceive of marijuana being illegal—or frankly understand why any drug is illegal. A 3.8 student already being looked at by Ivy League schools, my daughter is the product of an anti-DARE education. She’s the product of a Safety First education. She’s a product of this drug policy reform movement. That didn’t happen by accident.

That happened because of this village you intentionally grew, Ethan. You, our Ethan, my Ethan, my friend, and so when, Ethan, you told us that you were leaving and I likened it to the stages of grief, I want to say tonight that I’m sorry. It was the wrong analogy. Because while I’ve had moments of what felt like immeasurable sadness and denial and moments of—as Ira will attest to—a lot of anger, what I failed to make account for was the most important feeling of all.


An abiding, a profoundly felt, a deeply held gratitude. 

Let me say more about that. We could tick off all the victories one by one, and we’d be here well into next month. 

But what I want to lift up over all of those victories and what I believe is the single most important one, because it’s the one least guaranteed and hardest to do, is this building of a strong, stable organization, an organization prepared to face a multi-generational fight. Even in the darkest of times. This is something I know painfully well as both a child and inheritor of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. I know painfully well that the ability to transition movements from generation to generation is not set in stone. I spent formative years of my life visiting people I love, leaders, in prisons, in countries where they’d been exiled to. I spent time at gravesites. I know well when you challenge the way things are—at their core—it can always go another way. 

For this movement, it could have gone another way at the shadow conventions in 2000 or just thereafter when marijuana smokers were called terrorists.

It could have gone another way when DPA partners like VOCAL and colleagues like Tony Papa put their bodies on the line to say no to the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Police interactions for people of color always carry the risk of grave harm.

And frankly, in the current climate, it could have even gone another way on Saturday, when our academics, led by our own Dr. Jules Netherland, undertook the Mighty Science March in D.C. and across the country. At all of these there could have been devastating police interactions and consequence—which could have undone us. 

But part of the reason that there wasn’t is that piece-by-piece and person-by-person, working with often unlikely allies including even law enforcement, this is not our story to tell. It’s not your story to tell, Ethan.

Because you knew from the beginning that we needed a big tent to do this work. And today that big tent is needed more than ever as our work and our movement and the people we hold space for face incredible threats from the AG's offices to the ICE enforcers on the street. But you have prepared us for this moment because this is what great leaders do: They inspire greatness in others—and of all you’ve given, Ethan, it is this, the creation of an organization filled to overflow with brilliant, brave, beautiful people, people you didn’t know but somehow envisioned 23 years ago in a small basement office in the old OSF building in a room that had once been part of Roosevelt Hospital where it functioned first as operating room and then as a methadone clinic and then as a tiny think tank that would become the world’s leading organization on drug policy reform. You built an organization that is ready and able to call this nation to moral account and challenge it to meet the mighty mandate that is its experiment in democracy.

We are ready and able because a generation ago, you chose to stay and fight at a time when most Americans opposed you, when they did not think that marijuana should be legal, when "lock 'em up forever" was the call of the day, when the idea was unfathomable that an upstate mayor from your own state could even say the words "safe consumption rooms," let alone stand behind them. You stayed and you fought and because you did, So. Do. We. We are, in the words of the great educator Mary McLeod Bethune, not simply heirs of a great legacy and tradition, but we are its custodians. 

We are the Drug Policy Alliance, and the state of our organization is as strong as it ever was, and it will remain as strong as it needs to be until all of our people are home from prison and the harms of the drug war are no more.


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