America’s Drug Reform Lodestar

by Steve Moore


I have just watched Ethan Nadelmann give an extraordinary address to the opening of the Reform 2015 Conference in Arlington, Virginia. No one is measuring these things but this might just be the best drug reform event in history.

Nadelmann, the son of a New York Rabbi, didn’t think this would be his calling.

Ethan Nadelmann

Ethan Nadelmann (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)


In the late 1970’s, at college and on the cusp of what was to become a truncated but distinguished academic career — a period he now looks back upon as America’s ‘marijuana spring’ — Nadelmann observed Jimmy Carter advocate decriminalisation of weed and duly felt that Nixon’s self declared ‘war on drugs’ would come to an early end. He could not have been more wrong and after a brief period of studying international relations he immersed himself in investigating the police war on narcotics at Princeton.

Nadelmann has long drawn an analogue between the ‘war on drugs’ and McCarthyism, indeed he now describes the former as ‘McCarthyism with booster rockets’.

Nadelmann launched himself to the forefront of US drugs reform in 1987 when he spoke at a conference convened by the Defense Intelligence Agency with the top brass of the DEA, the FBI and the State Department in attendance.

Nadelmann took his chance with what was to become his trademark brio. He more or less told the high commanders of America’s drug prohibition that they were full of shit.

“You guys are no different from the Prohibition agents in the 1920’s. Your policy isn’t working any better, and it’s probably doing more harm.”

He never looked back.

If American drug reform has a lodestar, it is Nadelmann and it is hard to imagine it could have a more exuberant one.

Nadelmann started to align his formidable intellect with political campaigning skills. Often though, the exceptional rhetorical flair he possesses, lacks finesse when it comes to strategy. But he quickly demonstrated an uncommon patience and cautious adroitness.

His first major success was in California. In 1994 he left Princeton to establish the Lindesmith Center, named after Alfred Lindesmith, a scholar who spent decades challenging the criminalisation of drug users. George Soros, the hedge fund mogul, read a piece Nadelmann wrote in the New York Times and reached out to him. Nadelmann pitched him the idea that he fund a campaign to legalise medicinal access to marijuana, in 1995. Although he denied it at the time, and for years to come, he viewed medicinal access as a gateway to more radical reform. Soros agreed and funded Nadelmann’s first political campaign, alongside a coterie of other successful entrepreneurs. He immediately teamed up an existing campaign led by AIDS hospice pioneer Dennis Peron, but they quickly fell out. While Nadelmann tried to frame medical marijuana as a matter of common sense and compassion, Peron — an ex-hippie- would loudly insist that all marijuana use was medicinal. He jettisoned Peron, used his backer’s money to hire a professional political campaigning team and secured an overwhelming victory at the ballot box.

Nadelmann had the momentum he craved. He went back to his billionaires convincing them he could secure more ballot wins and he duly secured popular mandates for medicinal access in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado and Maine before the turn of the century.

In 2000 Nadelmann established the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) to broaden his network of influence across the US. The next ten years were to be frustrating in terms of political opportunity but Nadelmann used his time well to fortify the DPA’s campaigning capability, advocacy credentials and fundraising.

The dictum he followed was one of ‘baby steps and no regrets’ adopting a pragmatism that was at odds with his nature. He understood that momentum was vital and he declared that they would only invest in future campaigns if polling indicated at least 55% support.

Nadelmann next spotted such an opportunity in 2009. Richard Lee, a Texas-born, wheelchair-bound activist had just launched the first US marijuana trade school, Oaksterdam University. Venture capital was becoming attracted to the returns it was beginning to see in medical dispensaries. Lee and Nadelmann, with support once more from Soros, decided to go for broke and try to secure the signatures needed for a ballot to fully legalise marijuana in California. They came up short — just — in 2010, but within weeks California moved to decriminalise the possession of marijuana.

Since then Nadelmann has positioned the DPA as a strategic enabler that support nascent legalisation campaigns – including the seminally successful legalisation campaigns in Colorado and Oregon.

Taking the stage today, to a rock star reception, all Nadelmann’s oratorial flamboyance was on show. He pretty much turned a business conference setting into a setting for a revivalist meeting. He knows he has moved mountains and is self deprecating about it – ‘I wonder what I am going to do afterwards?’ He was also elegiac about the human and tax dollar cost of the drugs cold war. He elegantly elided the trajectory of future campaigns with the Black Lives Matter movement and warned against corporate interests exploiting a plant that every American should be allowed to grow.

It was a bravura performance and the 1400 delegates lapped it up.

There are 74 nations represented at the Reform Conference. Not many of them will be blessed with a Ethan Nadelmann but it is impossible to imagine that those who heard him address this conference will not return home reinvigorated and with a greater notion of possibility.


Our Editor-in-chief Steve Moore reporting from the Reform 2015 Conference in Arlington, Virginia. #ReformConf15

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