Ethan Nadelmann

What I Told a Committee of US Senators About the Need to End the War on Drugs

I wasn’t sure at first what to make of the invitation to testify from Senator Ron Johnson, the Tea Party Republican from Wisconsin who chairs the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Some colleagues thought it was basically a set-up: a Republican senator in a tough battle for re-election this fall looking for an opportunity to dump on “the legalizers” and blame America’s opioid epidemic on drug policy reformers. But others suspected that Johnson’s libertarian streak made him sympathetic to anti-prohibitionist perspectives, and that he was sincerely curious to hear new ideas. That latter view turned out to be right.

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Will Ohio Vote For Controversial Marijuana Legalization Plan?

The only significant marijuana legalization initiative on the ballot this November is in Ohio.

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America's Failed Drug War Is Crazy

The following is a transcript of a TED talk by Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. 

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It's Time to End American Exceptionalism When It Comes to Putting Citizens Behind Bars

It’s time to end the United States’ exceptionalism when it comes to incarcerating its citizens. Our objective should be to make America average.  We need to re-join the family of civilized nations when it comes to incarceration.

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7 Ways We Can Prevent Fatal ODs Like Hoffman's

People are mourning the tragic overdose death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was found Sunday morning alone in his New York apartment with a needle in his arm and empty bags of heroin.

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Ethan Nadelmann's Visionary Speech on How Society Should Deal with Drug Use

[Editor's Note: AlterNet is currently in Denver, Colorado at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance. Coverage of the conference is forthcoming. ]

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When Will Obama Adress the Issue of Mass Incarceration in America?

I firmly believe that at some point during his second administration President Obama is going to address the issue of mass incarceration in America. What I fear is that he is going to wait so long, and ultimately do so with such caution, as to minimize his potential impact.

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Why a New York Times Ad Says Prohibition Is Finally Coming To An End

In Thursday’s New York Times, the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s leading drug policy reform organization, is running a full-page ad to thank voters in Colorado and Washington and emphasize the growing support for drug policy reform. Last month, Colorado and Washington became the first two states in the country – and the first political jurisdictions anywhere in the world – to approve legally regulating marijuana like alcohol, with both states’ initiatives winning by decisive margins.

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4 Things Obama Says About Pot in His Barbara Walters Interview

Anytime the president answers a question about marijuana and federal marijuana policy, as he did in a recent interview with ABC's Barbara Walters that airs tonight, it makes sense to parse his words.

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5 Reasons the Feds Should Not Crack Down on Legal Pot

On Election Day, Washington State and Colorado became the first two states in the country -- and indeed the first political jurisdictions anywhere in the world -- to approve legally regulating marijuana like alcohol.

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The Prospects for Drug Reform in This Country Have Never Been So Good

The prospects for reforming drug policy have never been so good. The persistent failure and negative consequences of drug war policies, combined with budgetary woes and generational change, are mainstreaming reformist ideas once considered taboo.

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Obama Takes a Crack at Drug Reform

For those of us who fought long and hard to reform the notorious 100-to-one crack/powder cocaine disparity in federal law, the Fair Sentencing Act, signed by President Obama on August 3, is at once a historic victory and a major disappointment. It's both too little, too late and a big step forward.

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Why Ending Marijuana Prohibition is a Racial Justice Issue

The struggle to end America's disastrous war on drugs is a struggle for common sense, human rights and of course for racial justice. How could it not be, given the extraordinary and disproportionate extent to which people of color — and especially black people — are arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated for drug offenses?

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The Beginning of the End of Marijuana Prohibition

Even I can't believe the way that the marijuana issue is opening up right now.

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Help Mexico by Legalizing Marijuana

For months, Mexican drug trafficking organizations have battled it out with the Mexican government, the U.S. government, and each other, with violence escalating on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border. Since 2007, the Mexican drug war has claimed the lives of more than 7,500 people, including 200 Americans. Congress has already held several hearings on the issue and there are more to come.  Although they will try, it will be hard for members of Congress to continue ignoring the root cause of the problem – drug prohibition.
 
Many parts of Mexico today are like Chicago during the days of alcohol Prohibition and Al Capone – times fifty.  Citizens wonder who is in control: the government or one or another of the criminal organizations.  The U.S. Joint Forces Command recently warned that the Mexico government is in danger of becoming a weak and failed state and could descend into chaos. The U.S. State Department has issued an advisory warning Americans of the risks of traveling to Mexico, including being accidentally killed in violent confrontations between drug traffickers and the Mexico military.
 
As Mexico deals with the violence, crime and corruption of global drug prohibition, the United States is just beginning to confront the consequences of its own prohibitionist excesses.  With less than 5% of the world’s population, we have almost 25% of the world’s prisoners.  The incarcerated population has grown from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.3 million today, of which roughly a third are locked up for drug law violations or other prohibition-related offenses.  We rank first in the world in the per capita incarceration of our fellow citizens – and we incarcerate more people than China, whose overall population is four times greater than ours. Millions of Americans are barred from voting or accessing student loans, public housing or other assistance because of a drug law conviction. Even well-heeled states have been forced to put off expenditures on health, education, housing, and environmental protection in order to pay for prisons.
 
It’s no wonder then that more and more people are raising questions about the basic prohibitionist paradigm.  In the border city of El Paso, Texas, where several Mexican mayors live and commute to work out of fear their families will be killed if they live in Mexico, the city council passed a resolution in January calling on Congress to debate drug legalization as a way of reducing prohibition-related violence. In February, the Latin-American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, a high-level commission co-chaired by former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, called for a “paradigm shift” in global drug policy, including decriminalizing marijuana, and “breaking the taboo” on open and robust debate about all drug policy options.
 
The Attorney General of Arizona, citing evidence that Mexican drug trafficking organizations get 60% to 80% of their revenue from marijuana, has suggested that national policymakers debate legalizing marijuana as a way to cripple both Mexican and U.S. gangs. Although he was careful to say he wasn’t advocating legalization, he nevertheless asked the right question: Should marijuana be taxed and regulated like alcohol?
 
Critics will say legalization might increase drug use. Perhaps. But then again, studies around the world have found that the relative harshness of drug laws matters surprisingly little. After all, rates of illegal drug use in the United States are the same as, or higher than, Europe, despite our more punitive policies. And thirteen U.S. states have already decriminalized marijuana, but marijuana use rates in those states go up and down at roughly the same rates as in other states.
 
What matters most, of course, is not how many people use marijuana, alcohol or other drugs, but how best to reduce both the harms of drug misuse and the harms of drug control policies.  Seventy five years ago Americans recognized that the harms of alcohol misuse had been exceeded by the harms of alcohol Prohibition; they responded by repealing a national amendment for the one and only time in our nation’s history.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans die prematurely each year because of cigarette smoking but we’re still wise enough to understand that tough public health strategies produce better overall results than criminal prohibition.
 
Marijuana is dramatically less dangerous than either alcohol or cigarettes.  It’s far less addictive than the latter, and typically consumed in much smaller amounts.  It lacks alcohol’s powerful association with violence, accidents and reckless sexual behavior.  It’s impossible to die of a marijuana overdose.  And the consequences of marijuana addiction, for the small proportion of marijuana consumers who do become addicted, are dramatically less than the consequences of alcohol addiction.
 
With Mexico in crisis, U.S. prisons packed beyond capacity, and state and federal deficits soaring, the time has come to at least consider taxing and regulating marijuana. A 2005 study endorsed by hundreds of economists found that legalizing marijuana could save approximately $7.7 billion a year in government expenditures.  Taxing it like alcohol or tobacco could generate another $6.2 billion in revenue.  That’s enough to hire almost 350,000 new elementary school teachers or put 290,000 new police officers on the street.  No one would hate the new policy more than Mexico’s drug traffickers; after all, they’d be out of business.
 
Forty percent of all Americans say it’s time to legalize marijuana.  In some western states, support for legalization is approaching fifty percent.  If ever there were a time for politicians to open up this debate, it is now.

Opportunities for Drug Reform in the Obama Era

While President-elect Obama is not going to make ending the drug war his #1 priority, he has said that America should start treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue. He supports repealing the federal syringe ban and ending the DEA's raids on medical marijuana patients. He is also co-sponsor of Senator Biden's bill to eliminate the 100-to-1 crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

Moreover, many in leadership positions in Congress support drug policy reform, ranging from Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Representative Dana Rohrabacher.

In the months ahead, President-elect Obama will choose a new Drug Czar for our nation, and members of Congress will put together legislation to overhaul his agency. We have an opportunity to re-shape drug policy for a generation.

My enthusiasm is tempered, though, by the defeat of Proposition 5 in California. We knew from early polling that a substantial majority of Californians favored this major reform of the state's prisons and drug sentencing policies. But a sordid coalition of the prison guards' union, the beer distributors' association, gambling interests, fanatical anti-drug groups and craven politicians raised $3.5 million in the last few weeks of the campaign to run deceitful TV ads across the state. Ultimately we could not compete with their lies and scare tactics.

But I know from experience that there's opportunity to be found in every defeat. We built new coalitions and found new allies, injected new perspectives into the public debate, and increased our stature and ability to shape future policies. We also won respect throughout the state and the nation for taking on the Goliath of the prison-industrial complex.

I feel energized like never before, and so do my colleagues at the Drug Policy Alliance and our many allies in the growing movement to end the drug war. I hope you do, too.

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