Ethan A. Nadelmann

The Drive to Legalize Picks Up

Never before have so many Americans supported decriminalizing and even legalizing marijuana. Seventy-two percent say that for simple marijuana possession, people should not be incarcerated but fined: the generally accepted definition of "decriminalization." Even more Americans support making marijuana legal for medical purposes. Support for broader legalization ranges between 25 and 42 percent, depending on how one asks the question. Two of every five Americans – according to a 2003 Zogby poll – say "the government should treat marijuana more or less the same way it treats alcohol: It should regulate it, control it, tax it, and only make it illegal for children."

Close to 100 million Americans – including more than half of those between the ages of 18 and 50 – have tried marijuana at least once. Military and police recruiters often have no choice but to ignore past marijuana use by job seekers. The public apparently feels the same way about presidential and other political candidates. Al Gore, Bill Bradley and John Kerry all say they smoked pot in days past. So did Bill Clinton, with his notorious caveat. George W. Bush won't deny he did. And ever more political, business, religious, intellectual and other leaders plead guilty as well. The debate over ending marijuana prohibition simmers just below the surface of mainstream politics, crossing ideological and partisan boundaries. Marijuana is no longer the symbol of Sixties rebellion and Seventies permissiveness, and it's not just liberals and libertarians who say it should be legal, as William F. Buckley Jr. has demonstrated better than anyone. As director of the country's leading drug-policy-reform organization, I've had countless conversations with police and prosecutors, judges and politicians, and hundreds of others who quietly agree that the criminalization of marijuana is costly, foolish and destructive. What's most needed now is principled conservative leadership. Buckley has led the way, and New Mexico's former governor, Gary Johnson, spoke out courageously while in office. How about others?

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Tell Ashcroft Not to Abuse the RAVE Act

The Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act (also called the "RAVE Act"), which was attached to the AMBER Alert bill, passed both the House and Senate late yesterday (April 10).

The RAVE Act threatens free speech and musical expression while placing at risk any hotel/motel owner, concert promoter, event organizer, nightclub owner or arena/stadium owner for the drug violations of third parties -- real or alleged -- even if the event promoter and/or property owner made a good-faith effort to keep their event drug-free. It applies not just to electronic-music parties, but to any type of public gathering, including theatrical productions, rock concerts, DJ nights at local bars, and potentially even political rallies. It gives heightened powers and discretion to prosecutors, who may use it to target events they personally don't like -- such as Hip-Hop events or gay and lesbian fundraisers.

Sadly, the RAVE Act was added to the AMBER Alert bill conference report at the very last minute by Senator Biden (D-DE), its original sponsor. The AMBER Alert bill creates a system for responding to child abduction. It has nothing to do with drug policy. The RAVE Act had not passed even a single committee in the House or Senate this year. One senator's pet issue made a mockery of the Democratic process -- becoming law without any public hearing or opportunity for input whatsoever.

You should be aware that your letters and faxes clearly had an effect. (FYI -- you sent Congress 13,000 faxes this week alone!!) For example, the word "rave" was removed from the version of the bill that passed. Eliminating such blatant discrimination is a victory for our continued freedom of speech. Also, the original bill suggested that prosecutors should view the sale of water and the presence of glowsticks or massage oil as evidence of drug use. These ludicrous "findings" were completely removed thanks to you.

President Bush will sign this child abduction bill, which means the RAVE Act will become law as well. We will be working with the legislators who opposed this provision -- such as Senators Durbin, Kennedy and Leahy and Representatives Conyers and Scott -- for its repeal. In the meantime, however, it is up to all of us to be the watchdogs of its enforcement.

Attorney General John Ashcroft will have to make decisions about its enforcement priority among the many public safety issues the Department of Justice handles. He must be held responsible when he implements this scheme. We want him to know that he is not free to shut down our dance clubs, our festivals and our freedoms. We will be watching the activities of law enforcement and prosecutors, and we will act when our rights are violated. You can help us by faxing Attorney General Ashcroft.

We thank our many partners in this effort for your hard work: EM:DEF, ROAR, Buzzlife Productions, Davey D., electronic dance and music organizations throughout the U.S., club owners, hotel organizations, beverage and licensing groups, the ACLU and many, many others. But most of all, I want to say thank you personally to our members and supporters.

You truly deserve credit for reacting so quickly and so forcefully. It has really been amazing. When Bill McColl, our Director of National Affairs, told me about this issue last June he said that he thought the RAVE Act would pass in about two weeks. You proved us wrong. It took 10 months, a change in control of the Senate, backroom maneuverings and substantial changes to the bill. I'm proud of the hard work of our members, friends and our coalition. Rest assured we will continue to work together to mobilize opposition and advocate to fix this dangerous law.

Ethan Nadelmann is Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

The Hospice Raid and the War on Drugs

The war on drugs keeps getting bigger and meaner.

Just when you think the tide is beginning to turn, someone in charge takes it a step further.

Last week, DEA agents armed with automatic weapons raided a hospice on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, California, because it grew and used marijuana for its patients, most of them terminally ill. The founder and director, Valerie Corral, who uses marijuana herself to control debilitating seizures as a result of head trauma following a 1973 car accident, was taken away in her pajamas. Suzanne Pfeil, a paraplegic patient suffering from postpolio syndrome, was told to stand up and then was handcuffed in bed when she could not. All the plants were destroyed.

Of all the medical marijuana clubs, this was the one most true to the hospice spirit. It was a collective, run on a nonprofit basis. Valerie and her husband had created a place that brought peace, love and some measure of freedom from pain to those who came. Like the Brompton Cocktails found in British hospices, which can contain heroin or morphine, cocaine, alcohol and other pharmaceutical ingredients, the medicine was unconventional but effective.

Valerie's hospice was legal under California law, a product of Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot initiative in which 56 percent of voters endorsed the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. She was and is a member of Attorney General Bill Lockyer's 1999 medical marijuana policy task force. Her hospice was run openly with cooperation from state and local authorities.

The DEA's raid, and the clear directive from the Bush administration and its attorney general to assault and close this facility and others, is a travesty of justice -- one that did much to terrorize American citizens and absolutely nothing to protect or improve their health, welfare or safety.

More than two-thirds of Americans believe that marijuana should be legal for medical purposes. Medical marijuana initiatives have won in all eight states where they have been on the ballot, and would likely win in all but a handful. The Canadian government is taking steps to make marijuana available to patients north of our border.

Federal drug policy now lies in the hands of those who might best be described as the John Birchers of the drug war. Like the Southern racists who blocked civil rights reforms in the 1950s and 1960s, today's drug war politicians are out of step with the public, but they don't care. They're on their own crusade, one in which marijuana is as sinful as miscegenation was to the Southern racists or homosexuality is to today's religious fundamentalists.

They're also practitioners of the big lie. "On the face of it," says John Walters, "the idea that desperately sick people could be helped by smoking an intoxicating weed seems ... medieval. It is, in fact, absurd." Never mind thousands of reports by patients and doctors, dozens of studies and the National Academy of Sciences' conclusion that marijuana is therapeutically effective for a number of painful, chronic and terminal medical conditions for which pharmaceutical drugs are often ineffective or introduce negative side effects.

The hundreds of thousands of Americans who use marijuana for medical reasons, and the doctors who care for them, deserve a hearing in which they can defend their use of this unconventional medicine. They deserve the opportunity to give sworn testimony, and to confront the sworn testimony of those who persecute them. That's a job for Congress.

The raid on the Santa Cruz medical marijuana facility was, of course, about more than marijuana. It's part and parcel of the same insanity that drives the bigger war on drugs -- one that now incarcerates more people for drug law violations in the United States than all of western Europe (with a much larger population) incarcerates for everything; one that prefers to sacrifice tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars rather than make sterile syringes legally available to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS.

More than that, it provides insight into the potential abuse of police power in another war without end on which we have now enbarked. The attorney general of the United States ordered a raid on a medical marijuana hospice not because he had to, but because he possessed both the will and the power to do so. A Congress and a country preoccupied with many other concerns barely noticed.

Is the Santa Cruz raid, and more generally the war on drugs, a preview of what lies ahead in the war on terrorism? Is the future one in which increasingly empowered and emboldened federal police agencies intimidate, arrest and even terrorize not just those who pose true threats to security but also those who challenge little more than the moralistic convictions and political prejudices of power holders in the nation's capital?

I live for the day when our children will look back on the drug wars of today the way we now look back on Jim Crow and the Palmer raids after the First World War, the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II, and the McCarthyite persecutions of the 1950s. That is my moral crusade, and one shared by more and more other Americans as well.

Ethan Nadelmann is executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization promoting alternatives to the war on drugs.

Seeking Peace in the War on Drugs

"So what you’re saying is, you want to legalize drugs, right?"

That’s the first question I’m typically asked when I start talking about drug policy reform. My short answer is, "No, that’s not what I’m saying. Legalize marijuana? Yes, I think we need to head in that direction. But no, I’m not suggesting we make heroin and cocaine available the way we do alcohol and cigarettes."

"So what are you recommending?" is the second question. "And what do you mean by drug policy reform?"

Here’s the longer answer.

There is no drug legalization movement in America. What there is, is a nascent political and social movement for drug policy reform. It consists of the growing number of citizens who have been victimized, in one way or another, by the drug war, and who now believe that our current drug policies, like alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, do more harm than good. Most members of this "movement" barely perceive themselves as part of any broader cause.

The movement might include the judge required by inflexible, mandatory minimum sentencing laws to send a drug addict, or petty dealer, or dealer’s girlfriend, or Third World drug courier to prison for a longer time than many rapists and murderers serve.

Or the corrections officer who recalls the days when prisons housed "real" criminals, not the petty, nonviolent offenders who fill the cells these days.

Or the addict in recovery—employed, law abiding, a worthy citizen in every respect—who must travel a hundred miles each day to pick up her methadone, because current laws do not allow methadone prescriptions to be filled at a local pharmacy.

Or the nurse in the oncology or AIDS unit obliged to look the other way while a patient wracked with pain smokes her forbidden medicine, which works better than anything else.

Or the teacher or counselor warned by school authorities not to speak so frankly about drug use with his students lest he violate federal regulations prohibiting anything other than "just say no" bromides.

Or the doctor who’s afraid to prescribe medically appropriate doses of opioid analgesics to a patient in pain because any variations from the norm bring unfriendly scrutiny from government agents and state medical boards.

Or the employee with an outstanding record who fails a drug test on Monday morning because she shared a joint with her husband over the weekend and is fired.

Or the struggling North Dakota farmer who wonders why farmers in Canada and dozens of other countries can plant hemp, but he cannot.

Or the conservative Republican who abhors the extraordinary powers of police and prosecutors to seize private property from citizens who have not been convicted of violating any laws, and who worries about the corruption inherent in sending forfeited proceeds directly to law enforcement agencies.

Or the upstanding African American citizen repeatedly stopped by police for "driving while black" or even "walking while black."

The people who embrace the idea of drug policy reform are the ones who have connected the dots––the ones who understand how our prohibitionist drug policies are fueling serious social problems. We may not agree on what aspect of prohibition is most pernicious––the spread of violence, the corruption, the black market, the spread of disease, the loss of freedom, or simply the lies and hypocrisies––and we certainly don’t agree on the optimal solutions, but we all regard the current drug policies as a fundamental mistake in American society.

Any effort to reform drug policies confront powerful obstacles. A punitive approach to drug use and a temperance ideology almost as old as the nation itself are deeply embedded in American laws, institutions, and culture. It amounts to a national hysteria, rejuvenated each time a new drug emerges, ripe for political posturing and media mania. But America’s war on drugs is neither monolithic nor irreversible. Dissent is popping out all over. Most Americans have strong doubts about the drug war, according to opinion polls and recent referendum votes. They support treatment instead of incarceration for drug addicts. They think marijuana should be legally available for medical purposes. They don’t want the government seizing money and property from people who have never been convicted of a crime. They’re beginning to have doubts about the cost and meaning of incarcerating almost half a million of their fellow citizens for drug law violations.

So why does the drug war keep growing?

Part of the answer lies in what might best be described as a "drug prohibition complex" (taking off on President Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex) composed of the hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officials, private prison corporations, anti-drug organizations, drug testing companies, and many others who benefit economically, politically, emotionally, and otherwise from continued crackdowns on use of marijuana and other drugs. Drug prohibition is now big business in the United States.

Nonetheless, signs of reform abound. Hardcore drug opponents may still be powerful, but they’re gradually losing credibility. They look on marijuana with the same horror that anti-liquor crusaders like Carrie Nation viewed a mug of beer. And just as the temperance advocates became ever more shrill and silly as Prohibition stumbled along, so today’s anti-drug extremists sound increasingly foolish to the average American parent of today, who probably knows a thing or two about marijuana.

The most powerful evidence of shifting views on drug reform occurred on Election Day last year, when voters in five states—California, Nevada, Colorado, Oregon, and Utah—approved drug policy reform ballot initiatives. In California, voters overwhelmingly endorsed Proposition 36, the "treatment instead of incarceration" ballot initiative that should result in tens of thousands of nonviolent drug possession offenders being diverted from jail and prison into programs that may help them get their lives together. Voters in Nevada and Colorado approved medical marijuana ballot initiatives. In Oregon and Utah, voters overwhelmingly approved (by margins of two to one) ballot initiatives requiring police and prosecutors to meet a reasonable burden of proof before seizing money and other property from people they suspect of criminal activity. The measure also mandates that the proceeds from legal forfeitures be handed over not to the police and prosecuting agencies that had seized the property but rather to funds for public education or drug treatment. (The only setbacks were in Massachusetts, where voters narrowly defeated a combined forfeiture reform/diversion into treatment initiative, and in Alaska, where voters rejected a far-reaching marijuana legalization initiative.)

This followed up on other political victories. California’s Proposition 36 was modeled on one Arizona passed four years earlier. Oregon voters, meanwhile, affirmed the state’s marijuana decriminalization policies by a two-to-one margin in 1998. And voters in Mendocino, California, approved a ballot initiative last year to decriminalize cultivation of small amounts of cannabis. Clearly, more and more citizens realize that the drug war has failed and are looking for new approaches. The votes also suggest that there are limits to what people will accept in the name of fighting drugs. Parents don’t want their teenagers to smoke marijuana, but they also don’t want sick people who could benefit from the plant’s pain relief properties to suffer because of the war on drugs. Americans don’t approve of people using heroin or cocaine, but neither do they think it makes either economic or human sense to lock up drug addicts without first offering them a few opportunities to get their lives together outside prison walls.

The initiative victories demonstrated once again that the public is ahead of the politicians when it comes to embracing pragmatic drug policy reforms. But there is growing evidence that even some politicians are beginning to get it. Hawaii passed a medical marijuana law last year with the support of Governor Benjamin Cayetano. Three states—North Dakota, Minnesota, and Hawaii—enacted laws legalizing the cultivation of hemp (to the extent permitted by federal law), and hemp legalization bills are beginning to advance through other state legislatures as well. Vermont, one of eight states that prohibited methadone maintenance treatment, last year enacted a law that may ultimately lead to this treatment being made available not just in specialized clinics but also through public health clinics and private physicians. And, most significantly in terms of potential lives saved, three states—New York, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island—each enacted laws making it easier to purchase sterile syringes in pharmacies.

The governor of New Mexico, Republican Gary Johnson, is committed to far-reaching drug policy reform. And Salt Lake City’s new mayor, Rocky Anderson, has abandoned the popular but demonstrably ineffective DARE program.

Perhaps it’s too early to claim that all this adds up to a national vote of no confidence in the war on drugs. After all, drug war rhetoric still goes down easy in many parts of the country, and Congress has yet to demonstrate any reluctance to enact ever harsher and more far-reaching drug war legislation. But the pendulum does seem to be reversing direction. The initiatives and recent state legislative victories, the reform bills making their way through legislative committees, the governors and mayors beginning to speak out, the rapidly rising anti-war sentiment among African American leaders—all these are beginning to add up to something new in American politics. Call it a new anti-war movement. Call it a nascent movement for common sense justice. Or simply call it a rising chorus of dissent from the war on drugs.

Ethan A. Nadelmann directs the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation , a drug policy reform organization. This essay is adapted from a talk given at the New York Open Center and appeared originally in Lapis Magazine, published by the New York Open Center. Reprinted with permission from Utne Reader. To subscribe, call 800/736-UTNE or visit


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