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In his podcast, PSYCHOACTIVE, drug policy pioneer Ethan Nadelmann gets to the bottom of our strange relationship to drugs by talking with those who love them, hate them, and study them. Nadelmann has used his experiences as the founder & former executive director of The Lindesmith Center (1994-2000) and the Drug Policy Alliance (2000-2017) to open up a deeper and more sophisticated conversation about drugs.
This month, we’re pleased to speak with Ethan to learn more about what is happening in the industry, as well as highlight key events and legalization updates.
For context, you have made remarkable contributions to drug reform. What 2-3 things are you most proud of during your tenure at the Drug Policy Alliance?
I am of course enormously proud of the role I played in moving the United States from the situation in the late 1980s, when less than 30% of the country supported legalizing marijuana, to one in which most Americans now favor legalization and marijuana is legally regulated for medical and/or non-medical [use] in most states. The political aspects of that role began in 1996, with California’s Prop 215, and concluded for me in 2016, with the legalization of marijuana for all adults in California – with my colleagues and I playing both leading and supportive roles in dozens of successful legislative and ballot initiative efforts in the two decades between those two pivotal victories in California. What’s most important to me about that work is the fact that tens of millions of Americans are no longer at risk of getting arrested, incarcerated or otherwise punished by government and non-governmental entities for consuming marijuana.
But ending marijuana prohibition represented only one-third of my work and that of the Drug Policy Alliance. I am, in some respects, even more proud of our role in rolling back the broader war on drugs. As with marijuana reform, that included not just public education, but also state ballot initiatives and advocacy in state legislatures, Congress and the courts. The result is hundreds of thousands of Americans not being incarcerated for low level, non-violent drug offenses, or receiving shorter sentences than was previously the case, or being afforded the opportunity to seek treatment rather than lose their freedom.
It’s probably the last third of my work, though, that has saved the most lives. That involved our advocacy for harm reduction approaches to drug use. During the 1990s and early 2000s, our focus was on reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases by making sterile syringes available through pharmacies and needle exchange programs. Our focus then shifted to reducing overdose fatalities – by making the antidote naloxone more widely available, and passing 911 Good Samaritan laws, and advocating for overdose prevention centers.
The common link in all this work was not just our insistence that drug policies be grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights but also our commitment to the principle that no one deserves to be punished for what we put into our bodies absent harm to others.
What 2-3 things are most urgent moving forward?
I’d say my top priorities are:
Dramatically reducing the number of people dying of fatal drug overdoses. Over 100,000 Americans died last year from an overdose. That’s more than the total of all deaths from motor vehicle accidents and guns (including homicides, suicides and accidents) and drownings and HIV/AIDS! Much bolder government policies, including controversial harm reduction measures, will be required to succeed.
Ending the laws and practices that take away people’s freedom simply for possessing small amounts of drugs for one’s own use. Call it “all-drug decrim.” Call it “bringing the Portugal model to America.” Or call it the cutting edge of integrating sensible sentencing reform with harm reduction principles. I’m proud that my successors at the Drug Policy Alliance (since I stepped aside as executive director five years ago) led the way in making Oregon the first state – in 2020 – to approve a ballot initiative doing exactly this; and they’re now moving forward to pass similar legislation in other states.
And, as for marijuana, the top priority needs to be reducing as quickly as possible the number of people being arrested and incarcerated for marijuana offenses in the United States
The two largest legal states—California and New York—have a major illicit market problem that is persistent. How is that still so and who is to blame?
California and New York present quite different situations. I am less concerned about New York, where the illicit market should diminish rapidly as the legalization law is implemented. And I should also say I am proud that the Drug Policy Alliance has been the key leader of marijuana reform in New York, spearheading first the efforts to reduce marijuana arrests and legalize medical marijuana and more recently the successful campaign to make New York the leader in responsible marijuana regulation. I’m also delighted that a former colleague of mine at DPA, Chris Alexander, is now in charge of the state’s marijuana regulatory agency.
California, however, has always presented unique challenges: first, because its illicit production of marijuana has been far greater than anywhere else for many, many decades; and, second, because it was the first state to legalize medical marijuana but did not enact any statewide regulatory scheme for almost twenty years thereafter. The transition in California will inevitably happen but it’s going to take time, not unlike the situation in those states with the most dynamic illicit markets in alcohol when Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
Is the current Administration doing enough toward national legalization?
Absolutely not. Joe Biden has long been resistant to marijuana reform, and especially to legalization. He was one of the only candidates in the Democratic primaries in 2019-2020 to oppose marijuana legalization, and his hostility to legalization has hampered progress at the federal level. But the fact remains that there still are not fifty votes for legalization in the U.S. Senate. Blame falls largely on the Republicans, few of whom support legalizing marijuana, but there are close to a dozen Democrats who remain less than enthusiastic.
Will psychedelics follow the same path as cannabis? First medical use and then adult use?
With marijuana, reform in most states almost always started with medical use and then progressed to all adult use. Psychedelics is different, with MAPS and private companies playing an important role in seeking approval through the FDA, and activists working at the local and state level to decriminalize production and consumption of various psychedelics (often the plant forms), and other activists pursuing variations on the pioneering Oregon model in which psychedelics are approved for therapeutic uses.
Who do you admire most in the industry?
It’s the people who devote the greatest portion of their revenue and time to supporting the broader cause of drug policy reform.
Ethan Nadelmann, host of the podcast PSYCHOACTIVE, is the founder & former executive director of The Lindesmith Center (1994-2000) and the Drug Policy Alliance (2000-2017). He is a consultant to the cannabis practice of the accounting firm, PKF O’Connor Davies.
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California – California bills to legalize psychedelics possession, create the infrastructure to allow interstate marijuana commerce, prohibit localities from banning medical cannabis delivery services and impose new labeling requirements for cannabis products are all teed up for consideration in a key Assembly committee this month
National – Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) Says There’s Republican Support For ‘SAFE Banking Plus’ Marijuana Compromise
National – The nation’s largest union representing federal employees, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), recently adopted a resolution in support of marijuana legalization — calling for an end to policies that penalize federal workers who use cannabis responsibly while they’re off the clock in states where it is legal.