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The Politics of Marijuana and the War on Drugs: An Interview with Ethan Nadelmann

Described by Rolling Stone as “the point man” for drug policy reform efforts and “the real drug czar,” Ethan Nadelmann is widely regarded as the outstanding proponent of drug policy reform both in the United States and abroad. After receiving his PhD in Political Science from Harvard University, Ethan went on to teach at Princeton University from 1987 to 1994. He went on to found and direct The Lindesmith Center (1994-2000) and the Drug Policy Alliance (2000-2017), during which time he and his colleagues were at the forefront of dozens of successful campaigns to legalize marijuana and advance other alternatives to the war on drugs. His 2014 TED Talk on ending the drug war has over two million views, with translations into 28 languages. Ethan currently hosts the leading podcast on all things drugs: PSYCHOACTIVE.

Elise Curtin and Alex Fasseas: In a recent episode on your podcast PSYCHOACTIVE, you discussed cannabis reform with House Republican Nancy Mace. Despite Mace’s pro-legalization stance, Republican support remains scarce. First, why is it that legalization is a partisan issue? And second, what in your opinion is the best argument to convince someone with conservative views to support legalization?

Ethan Nadelmann: On the one hand, there’s always been a partisan divide between the Democrats and the Republicans on legalizing marijuana, which in large part had to do with marijuana’s association with rebellion and cultural opposition in the 1960-70s. So you always had that divide. On the other hand, among my most passionate allies were the Republicans with a libertarian leaning—granted most of the base of my support was still on the left. For instance, when former governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson became one of the first governors to boldly step out in favor of marijuana legalization, he became my great ally on the issue.

Another one of my allies, believe it or not, was Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform. His famous line was, “I want to make government so small, you can strangle it in a bathtub.” So this is a guy who I politically disagree with on the large majority of issues, and yet he’s my close ally on drug policy reform. He arranged for me to speak in plenary sessions at multiple Conservative Political Action Conferences (CPACs), where I would always debate someone from the right-wing. And there would always be people in the audience yelling things like, “Get him off the stage!” or “He works for Soros!” But by the end of the debate, I would always receive more applause, because all the young conservatives showing up to CPACs were sympathetic to legalizing marijuana, and even some of the older, more libertarian-minded folks were, too.

Over the last decade or so we’ve started to see a majority of young Republicans and representatives like Nancy Mace come out in favor of marijuana legalization. When you look at red and purple states—South Dakota, Montana, Arizona—voting for marijuana legalization, you’re seeing the divide between the Democrats and the Republicans become less substantial. Another example is support for legalizing medical marijuana, which used to be overwhelmingly Democrat with only a handful of Republicans. And then as Democrat support grew from 60 percent to 90 percent, Republican support blossomed to about 60 percent in the last few years.

In terms of convincing Republicans, I think it really comes down to two arguments: decreasing police overreach and potential tax revenue. More specifically, we’d rather have the cops focusing on real crime instead of busting young people for weed. And second, we’d rather have the government taxing and regulating marajuana instead of letting the gangsters make all the money. In almost every state, these poll-tested messages have appealed to both Democrat and Republican swing voters.

EC & AF: What are some often-overlooked positive or negative externalities that accompany the legalization of marajuana? For instance, how might it function as a substitute for other psychoactive substances?

EN: There are two interesting areas of study that look at substitutability with marijuana. One is vis-à-vis alcohol; some studies show that legalization results in a reduction in alcohol use—how significant it is is hard to say. The second area is with opioids; there are now at least 10 studies that suggest that the first few states that legalized medical marijuana have had lower rates of opioid overdose fatalities. That is likely due to two factors: first, people experiment with substituting cannabis for opioids in order to deal with certain types of pain. The other factor has to do with the fact that cannabis is an enhancer, so patients can take a lower dose of opioids when combined with cannabis and still get the same pain relief effect.

In terms of negative externalities, one of the principal arguments used against marijuana legalization is that it can lead to an increase in use among adolescents. But what critics fail to account for is the fact that adolescents are the ones who already have the best access to marijuana. So even when we started legalizing the stuff, adolescent use did not go up. In fact, some places even saw a decrease in adolescent and college-age users.

Where use did go up was among people between their 40s and their 90s; there’s been a fourfold increase in my generation’s use of cannabis over the last 10 years, and it’s because people are substituting it out for alcohol, prescription drugs, sleeping pills, etc. I know a lot of couples who have been in a monogamous relationship for 20, 30, 40 years where cannabis plays a central role in their ongoing sexual relationship. It can act not so much as a Viagra, but as a way for people to stay connected, to shift their context. So I think that’s where we’ve seen some real positive susceptibility.

Obviously, the advocates—myself included—want to emphasize the upsides and the safety of marijuana, but I always felt that our credibility was greatest when we acknowledged right at the outset that cannabis is a psychoactive drug that can be harmful to people. On the other hand, one could point to the fact that for many people, the worst thing that ever happened to them from their marijuana use was getting busted for it. The government—specifically the National Institute on Drug Abuse—spends billions of dollars to show the negative harms of marijuana, but they never spend the money to show the negative harms of being arrested and incarcerated, even for just a few days, for possession.

EC & AF: What do you consider to be the most significant political accomplishment of your career thus far?

EN: I think the most obvious success was ending marijuana prohibition. I was speaking and publishing in both left- and right-wing policy journals about why we needed to legalize marijuana more than 20 years ago. I took a lot of pride in building a broader drug policy reform movement, in weaving together disparate strands of people—from conservatives, to psychedelics users, to sobriety advocates, to law enforcers, to ex-inmates.

My role on marijuana legalization started off with spearheading the first California medical marijuana initiative in 1996, and then taking it to Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Nevada and Maine from 1998 to 2000. That arc from the early ’90s through 2016 for me was, I think, the greatest and most conspicuous success. From there I helped build out the movement, pushing ballot initiatives to reduce arrests and incarceration, which, as a result, have allowed over 100,000 people to stay out of prison or serve shorter sentences. Additionally, back in 2000, we organized the first international conference on preventing overdose fatalities, making naloxone more readily available and passing 911 Good Samaritan laws, which allow drug users to access emergency services without fear of arrest.

EC & AF: Looking to the future, what upcoming or current project are you most enthusiastic about?

EN: The issue that has really galvanized me in the last few years since I stopped running the Drug Policy Alliance have been the debates surrounding e-cigarettes and harm reduction. Evidence shows that if you take an adult smoker who’s addicted to cigarettes and has been unable to quit, and transition them over to e-cigarettes, you cut the risk to their health by roughly 95 percent. And that’s because most of the harm of tobacco comes not from the nicotine, but from the burnt particle matter and the carcinogenic tars which can lead to heart and lung disease, and eventually death.

On the other hand, nicotine consumed in an e-cigarette has relatively little harm to your health. You can be on nicotine for the rest of your life, and maybe there’s a cardiovascular risk as you get older, but overall it’s not that dangerous as a substance. What that means is that if all 40 million Americans who are currently addicted to cigarettes switched to e-cigarettes, it would represent one of the greatest advances in public health in American history. Ultimately, however, the reason we can’t have tobacco harm reduction is because most people and policymakers view it as a big child protection act. 

So this is the issue on which I’ve become most animated. And I think there’s a possibility that a generation from now, the war on drugs is not going to be about marijuana, cocaine, heroin, etc. It’s going to be about tobacco.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.