"Hi reddit, Ethan Nadelmann here. I'm the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org), the leading organization in the United States promoting alternatives to the war on drugs. I've written 2 books (http://www.drugpolicy.org/staff-and-board/staff/ethan-nadelmann-executive-director) on the subject, and myself and my colleagues at DPA colleagues have worked on much of the major drug policy reform ballot initiative campaigns in the United States on issues ranging from medical marijuana and marijuana legalization to prison reform, drug treatment and reform of asset forfeiture laws. I stopped by to do an AMA back in November (http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/13iter/i_am_ethan_nadelmann_executive_director_of_the/) of last year, and wanted to come back to take more of your questions. I will be debating Marijuana legalization with former DEA head and U.S. Congressman Asa Hutchinson at the Aspen Ideas Festival (http://www.aspenideas.org/speaker/ethan-nadelmann) today - so to help me prepare for this debate in an hour or so - please AMA! Thanks!

Comments: 456 • Responses: 22  • Date: 

Ethan_Nadelmann487 karma

I hear the top AMA right now is folks asking Robert Downey Junior to do his own AMA. If he agrees, keep in mind that Robert was one of the first beneficiaries of the ballot initiative that DPA drafted and won in California back in 2000 -- Prop 36 -- which prohibited incarcerating someone the first or second time they got arrested for drug possession, and which required that they get access to drug treatment instead. Robert: we need you to step out and support the drug policy reform cause!!!

CatchingRays167 karma

I suspect you come across a lot of political nuance in your work. I don't really understand who is opposing marijuana legalization anymore. The libertarian slant on both sides in America seem to be for it. Who is the major force behind prohibition these days? The corporate prison lobby? The church? anyone else?

Ethan_Nadelmann403 karma

Our opponents vary. Demographically, we get the least support among conservatives, Republicans and people over the age of 65, although the polls indicate that support for marijuana and other drug policy reform is growing rapidly even among those groups.

With marijuana legalization, the prison guard unions and private prison corporations have not really been all that involved in opposing our efforts. It's more the police chiefs who get bent out of shape on this issue. The prison industrial interests are most active in opposing our efforts to reduce incarceration of people arrested for low level drug offenses. They killed us when we tried to reform California's prison system back in 2008 with Prop 5.

But, I'll tell you, our most forceful and duplicitous opponents are the prosecutors, and for them it's not really about $$$ but about power - their inter-personal power in the criminal justice system, their power to coerce people to inform on friends and family members, their desire for the power that comes from winning higher political office, and so on. And they often oppose everything -- not just marijuana legalization, but needle exchange programs to reduce AIDS, and Good Samaritan laws to reduce OD fatalities, and alternatives to incarceration. It's remarkable how uncountable prosecutors have become in our American system of (in(justice)!

Ethan_Nadelmann96 karma

EDIT Now it's time to end since I have the debate with former DEA head Asa Hutchinson at 10:20 AM MT. You can watch live here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D05OI982hUY.

I will be back on Reddit for another AMA July 9, at 2:30 PM ET.

Check out www.drugpolicy.org and plan on coming to the greatest gathering of drug policy reformers in the world -- in Denver, Oct. 23-26, 2013. www.reformconference.org

And for all of you spending time and energy trying to end the crazy drug war in America and everywhere, thank you for what you're doing -- and thanks too for all of your thoughtful questions this past hour.


Salacious-63 karma

Are there any politicians currently in office who you think really do care about the interests of the people and put that first, instead of worrying more about public image and political considerations? If so, who?

Ethan_Nadelmann94 karma

Yes I do. When it comes to drug policy, most of the gutsy folks are in state legislatures, but as for members of Congress, keep your eye on Steve Cohen from TN, Beto O'Rourke from El Paso, Hakeem Jeffries from NYC, Jared Polis from Co, Earl Blumenauer from OR and most of the others who have been willing to step out on marijuana reform and prison reform etc. Quite frankly I also think that Nancy Pelosi has provided relatively good leadership on our issues.

AlDorman52 karma

Firstly, you are a hero. Question: Do you suggest championing "jury nullification" to the masses? Or is that just not going to end the drug war machinery?

Ethan_Nadelmann59 karma

Yes it is a very good idea to make more people aware of the jury nullification option. While it admittedly has an ugly history with all white juries in the Jim Crow South using it to acquit people accused of lynching and other race-based crimes, I believe it is used primarily these days by jurors who think the current drug laws are unjust and even unnecessary. More people need to know about this option, and to exercise this right when they get called to serve on a jury.

I think Steve Silverman and Flex Your Rights, who did that excellent video on how not to get arrested when you're stopped by the police, has something in the works on this issue, which should be excellent.

Prevailing50 karma

Do you believe that drug use would increase, decrease, or stay the same if the bans were lifted?

Ethan_Nadelmann111 karma

Much depends on how one removes the ban. The best evidence shows that removing the penalties on possession of small amounts for personal use, while keeping in place the prohibitions on production and sale, has no impact on levels of consumption. But it does reduce the number of people being arrested, reduces the harms of illicit drug use, and allows addiction to be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.

With respect to legalization of marijuana, my best guess is that we will see some increase in the number of consumers because it will be easier to obtain and probably less expensive than it is now. But I think the increase will happen not so much among young people -- who already have incredibly easy access to marijuana -- and more among older people who find they prefer it to alcohol or pharmaceuticals.

As for the other drugs, take a look at what the Europeans have done with prescribing pharmaceutical heroin to people who have been addicted to street heroin. There you see no overall increases in use -- in fact, quite the opposite.

ummcal46 karma

Is it dangerous to publicly promote the legalization and regulations of drugs? Are there any threats from criminal organisations, who don't want to lose their market?

Ethan_Nadelmann67 karma

I don't think it's dangerous, especially in the US, and I have not seen fellow reformers even in Mexico get threatened by drug traffickers for our sort of advocacy.

i must admit I used to worry a little more about folks in law enforcement coming after me -- especially back in the late 80s and early 90s when I was just starting to speak out, and only a few years earlier had had a security clearance and had been interviewing DEA and other federal police agents all over the world. But nothing happened back then, and I don't see it happening now.

I guess the interesting question will be when legalization starts to become a real possibility in Mexico and people start fighting over who will get the profits from legal marijuana. But at least until then I think we're OK.

Sexy_Sasquatch25 karma

What country's drug policy model, or hypothesized model do you think would be ideal for the States?

Ethan_Nadelmann36 karma

I think the first country to provide a model was The Netherlands, which introduced the quasi-legal regulation of retail sale of cannabis through the "coffee shop" system with substantial success back in the late 70s and early 80s; and which also was just about the first to introduce needle exchange and other harm reduction programs to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS by and among injecting drug users thirty years ago.

The second model is Switzerland, which really took the lead twenty years ago in creating heroin maintenance programs to reduce the health and public safety problems associated with illegal heroin use in street drug markets. That model has now been adapted in Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands, the UK and to some extent in other countries as well, not least because it has proven so effective in reducing not just the health harms associated with heroin, but also drug related arrests and crime as well as criminal justice costs.

The third model is Portugal, which I describe elsewhere in this AMA. If you want to know more take a look at the academic analysis published a couple of years ago in the British Journal of Criminology by Alex Stevens and Caitlin Hughes.

Finally, when it comes to marijuana policy the fact of the matter is that the United States has really emerged as the global leader - obviously not at the level of the federal government, but very much so at the level of civil society and state government. That said, keep you eye on Uruguay, as I said elsewhere in this AMA.

maurerjuana25 karma

Ethan, I appreciate your time. Do you think it would expedite the process of ending federal cannabis prohibition if a midwest state like Missouri was to pass a legalization initiative?


Ethan_Nadelmann34 karma

Absolutely, yes. Midwest or even more so in the South, where Missouri sort of is.

infectiouschris22 karma

New synthetic drugs are all the rage nowadays. These compounds are generally available for years before they can be made illegal and there's literally hundreds that become available each year, it would seem this is an especially hot area on the prohibition debate. Often these carry greater risks than traditional illicits. What is your tact when discussing these in the context of prohibition over the entire spectrum?

Ethan_Nadelmann38 karma

The key is keeping our eyes focused on safety -- making sure that people, especially younger people, who use these substances don't get hurt. i am proud that last month DPA co-hosted, for the first time, the annual international club health conference, which was held for the first time in the US.

I am really struck by what New Zealand is trying to do. Synthetic drug use is a big issue there, and the government is now moving forward with a bill to allow synthetic recreational drugs to go thru an approval process much like the process that other drugs go through. That means that a drug used primarily for recreational purposes will have a chance of being legally approved and regulated, just like other drugs, if it can establish its safety margin. This could well be in effect by the fall.

GoiterFlop17 karma


Thanks for doing an AMA

What tools or arguments have you had the most luck with when trying to explain to someone your point of view? Both on the professional level and the personal level:

I run into this problem a lot. I feel as though my views are solid and backed with evidence but any time I try to explain it to someone , the idea of regulating dangerous drugs sounds so ludicrous that anyone in a discussion seems to react with gut feelings and not following through with logic.

Ethan_Nadelmann43 karma

It's easiest with marijuana -- and basically involves making the historical comparison to alcohol Prohibition. That whether one likes marijuana or hates it, the fact of the matter is that marijuana prohibition works no better than alcohol Prohibition did, and is generating many of the same sorts of negative consequences that Prohibition did back then.

I can tell you from our research in doing marijuana reform efforts that the two arguments that appeal most strongly to people who are on the fence about legalizing marijuana are 1) better to allow the police to focus on real crime than to keep wasting time and resources arresting young people for marijuana; and 2) that it would far better for state and local governments to regulate and tax marijuana than to effectively leave the "regulation" and profits to organized and unorganized criminals.

My principal personal motivation for doing what I do has more to do with seeing this issue as one of human rights, but I find that is not the sort of argument that appeals to most people in the middle on this.

salinger00716 karma


Ethan_Nadelmann29 karma

I was delighted that DPA was able to help with the ballot initiative in California last November -- Prop 36 -- that reformed the notorious 3 strikes law in that state, and that won with more than 2/3 of the vote. Now the challenge is getting the law implemented effectively and passing similar sorts of laws in other states.

GeeK414 karma

Have you ever done drugs? Remember BE HONEST!

Ethan_Nadelmann32 karma

Yes, and you can read about it in Rolling Stone's recent profile of me (http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/ethan-nadelmann-the-real-drug-czar-20130606) and also in the interview that came out yesterday in The Fix (http://www.thefix.com/content/ethan-nadelmann-drug-policy91855).

tddr12111 karma


Ethan_Nadelmann16 karma

Re 1), take a look at the organization, LEAP, which is doing great work organizing mostly former law enforcement officers who now oppose drug prohibition.

tarasimmons8 karma

Ethan love your work, it's very inspiring. Are you planning on coming to Australia in 2013?

Ethan_Nadelmann7 karma

No plans right now, altho the folks in nimbin tried to get me to come recently for their annual event. I did go in late 2010, and did a speaking tour of Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane, meeting with parliamentarians, activists, and many others. There's some good reform efforts underway; if you're interested, contact Dr. Alex Wodak in Sydney; and check out LEAP in Australia

neatobendito6 karma

Hi, Thank you for being here! I follow DPA and it's work closely and I'm looking forward to the debate today. My question is about individual activism. I regularly write my representatives regarding this issue and participate in community events when able. Where would you direct someone who wants to become more active in this movement? Is there a specific career path/degree program/etc. that you would recommend?

Ethan_Nadelmann9 karma

No one career path is optimal. The key is to learn everything you can about the issue, and to work on becoming an ever more effective advocate, and to acquire the sorts of skills that every advocacy organization needs -- could be legal, financial, communications, public policy, fundraising, etc. And keep your eye on dpa's website drugpolicy.org and the websites of other drug policy reform organizations for job and internship possibilities.

and do everything you can to come to the biennial international drug policy reform conference, which will be in Denver this year, Oct. 23-26. www.reformconference.org

alencar_r5 karma

Does Drug Pollicy Alliance promote any kind of drug policy reform outside the U.S? Do you have plans to create an office in Latin America?

Ethan_Nadelmann12 karma

Yes, we're doing more and more work throughout the Americas. I've been quite deeply involved in Canada over the years, advising the past four mayors of Vancouver, testifying before the Canadian Senate and now doing everything I can to bring attention to the atrocious drug policies of the Harper govt.

I and DPA have also been deeply involved with the Latin American and Global Drug Policy Commissions, co-chaired by former presidents Cardoso, Gaviria and Zedillo, helping advise and publicize their work. And last year I had a chance to meet directly with Colombian president Santos, Guatemalan president Perez Molina and Mexican president Calderon, the first two of whom are remarkable allies in calling for new drug policies, and even Calderon was interesting on the issue.

But what I am most excited about right now is the marijuana legalization effort in Uruguay, where President Mujica is leading the effort and I have a colleague working fulltime in Montevideo trying to help local activists as well as allies in government. Stay tuned for news from there. There's a good chance that Uruguay could become the first country in the world to legalize marijuana -- and the race is on among Colorado, Washington State and Uruguay as to who will be first to actually create a legal regulatory system for cannabis

og185 karma

How do you answer to claims that marijuana is a gateway drug or is as harmful as harder drugs? I know there are some studies disproving these claims but none, to my knowledge, officially funded by the government.

Ethan_Nadelmann30 karma

Actually there are lots of government studies and government funded commissions that establish that marijuana is not a gateway drug and is in fact less harmful than many other drugs, including the legal ones. Take a look, for instance, at the National Academies of Sciences report on medical marijuana back in the late 1990s, which said clearly that there is no evidence for the gateway effect of marijuana. MY view on the gateway theory is that it is an ounce of truth embedded in a pound of bullshit. On the one hand most people who use heroin or cocaine tried marijuana first, but it's also the case that they tried alcohol and cigarettes first as well. On the other hand, the vast majority of people who use marijuana never go on to use cocaine or heroin or methamphetamine or even to get in trouble with marijuana. That's why my old friend Lynn Zimmer once said that trying to prevent heroin addiction by focusing on marijuana use is like trying to reduce motorcycle fatalities by discouraging bicycle riding.


What do you propose is the best approach to changing the way our current prison system in the US is handled? I feel getting the government to reform our current prison will be next to impossible seeing as its a great money maker for the government and also a great form of population control. What steps would you suggest be taken to change the current system, other than just putting drug offenders in rehabilitation programs?

Ethan_Nadelmann13 karma

Drug policy reform is the cutting edge of prison reform. That means, of course, taking marijuana out of the criminal justice system. That cuts drug arrests in half, from roughly 1.5 million to half that, and it also keeps all sorts of people on parole and probation from getting pushed into jail or prison because they refuse to stop using.

The other important step is ending the criminalization, at least of possession, of all drugs -- more or less what Portugal has done with great success over the past twelve years. Roughly three-fourths of all drug arrests are for nothing more than possession, and altho most of them do not land up on state and federal prison, they do land up in local jails, and often can land up in prisons for failing drug tests.

Of course there's also the challenge of getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences that send people to prison for inhumane amounts of time, and effectively give all the power over sentencing to prosecutors.

What we need as a country to do is declare as our objective that America's rate of incarceration should be at the global average, not in the global lead.

nefariousity3 karma

When Cannabis is legalized in a state, do individuals with cannabis-related criminal charges get any sort of retroactive pardons/forgiveness?

Sorry if I've worded this poorly, I can't Lawyer.

Ethan_Nadelmann10 karma

I don't think there are any retroactive provisions in the WA or CO laws but I have heard that many prosecutors in those states are in effect implementing the law in a retroactive fashion, deciding not to prosecute people who were arrested before the law was passed.

SigSauer932 karma

What would be your key points for legalization of marijuana in the debate

Ethan_Nadelmann10 karma

You should watch at 10:20 MT when I debate Asa Hutchinson at the Aspen Ideas Festival on this very topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D05OI982hUY