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July 10, 2004 - The Tribune Review (Pittsburgh, PA)

Protesting The Drug War

By Bill Steigerwald, Tribune-Review associate editor

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

National Review magazine has shocked and annoyed more than a few of its conservative faithful with its current cover story, "Going to Pot: The growing movement toward ending America's irrational marijuana prohibition."

Written by Ethan Nadelmann, the country's most dogged and arguably most influential proponent of drug-law reform, the piece calls for decriminalizing marijuana and humanizing the federal war on (some) drugs. The son of a rabbi, Nadelmann is executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance - a group that has 20,000 paying members and owes its existence to early funding by billionaire George Soros. I talked to Nadelmann by phone from San Francisco.

Q: What is the Drug Policy Alliance and what are its aims?

A: We're the leading organization promoting alternatives to the war on drugs. Essentially, we're the organization composed of people who believe the war on drugs is doing more harm to society than good. Our membership, our board, our staff, spans the spectrum, from people who believe that the answer is to legalize all drugs to people who are hesitant to legalize anything but who basically believe that treating drugs as fundamentally a criminal-justice issue is fundamentally misguided. Where the consensus lies right now is in ending marijuana prohibition.

Q: How is society hurt by drugs?

A: There's no question that some substances in and of themselves can cause harm. What's interesting, of course, is that two drugs that are legal (alcohol and nicotine) are in some respects the most dangerous in health terms of all the drugs. Marijuana may well be the safest of all the substances. The other factor is that when you make these drugs illegal, you end up making them more dangerous. Cocaine, heroin, amphetamine, all these drugs, are much more dangerous because they are illegal. They are adulterated, they are unregulated, they are of unknown potency and purity. And the result is oftentimes more, not fewer, fatalities.

Q: How is society hurt by the war on drugs?

A: That's the crazy part of this. As dangerous as drugs can be for many people, the war on drugs is causing dramatically more harm than drugs themselves.

When you are arresting 1.5 million people a year; when you have almost half a million people behind bars on any one night on drug charges; when you are effectively encouraging the spread of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis by depriving people of legal access to sterile syringes; when you're spending something like $40 billion a year on the war on drugs -- all of these things are extraordinary wastes.

Then there is the corruption of our morals, when people are turned into informants and rats by police pressure and obliged to turn against one another. The war on drugs is not something that is just targeting the most heinous and predatory people in this country; it's something that is targeting and criminalizing tens of millions of people every year and employing government tactics -- surveillance and undercover police -- that are really antithetical to what it means to live in a free country.

Q: Are all illegal drugs worthy of being decriminalized or just marijuana?

A: You have to distinguish between the issue of possession and the issue of distribution. Our core principle is that people should not be punished simply for what they put in their body if they don't hurt other people. Hold people responsible for their actions and harm against others, but don't punish people for what they put in their body. If you possess small amounts of a drug for your own personal use, that should not be a crime -- regardless of the drug.

When it comes to the issue of production and distribution, we're very clear that with respect to cannabis, that this should ultimately be treated more or less like alcohol. It should be legally regulated. It should be subject to state and local control with respect to local norms. With respect to the other drugs, we have an internal debate within our organization and our movement whether these also should be treated by legal regulation of some sort or whether they should be just by prescription only.

Q: Is this a political debate, a moral debate or a health debate?

A: Well, it's all three of those. If you look at this from a public health perspective, the question is, "How do we most reduce the negative consequences of drug use?" The optimal policy, we say, is the one which most effectively reduces the cumulative death, disease, crime and suffering, both with the use of drugs and drug-control policy.

There's also a very powerful moral dimension. There are people who regard any use of some of these drugs as immoral. On the other hand, you have people like myself, the Drug Policy Alliance, who also regard this as a moral issue. But for us, the morality is that people should not be punished for what they put in their body. We regard this very much as a moral struggle on our part, and it's about freedom, it's about compassion, and it's about responsibility. And we think the war on drugs is violating all three of these basic notions.

Q: When you look around the world of drugs and drug policy, what are you encouraged by?

A: There are a number of things. The first is that public opinion has clearly been shifting in favor of reform over the last 10 to 15 years. The second thing is that we are actually winning things. Almost 150 drug policy reforms have been enacted into law at the state level since 1996, either by ballot initiative or the state legislative route.

And the third thing is that what you see throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other parts of the world is a very significant moving forward in terms of embracing decriminalization and harm reduction.

Q: Do you see the end of the war on drugs in our lifetimes?

A: I'll tell you this: It's definitely going to be changing. I'd say the odds of marijuana prohibition coming to an end in our lifetime -- how old are you?

Q: 56.

A: And I'm 47. I'd say that the odds of that happening in the next 10 to 15 years are quite good. I think the thing I'm most concerned about right now is that there is really a push on the part of the government, with really ominous totalitarian consequences -- and I do not use that word lightly -- that involves trying to drug test greater and greater and greater portions of the population, and employing drug testing backed by different types of sanctions in order to basically try to put whatever force they can behind a zero-tolerance policy.

I think that is an extraordinary ominous development. It is clearly the obsession and focus of this particular administration. If you listen to what the drug czar John Walters is saying and focusing on as he travels around the country, it's all about, first of all, marijuana and drug testing.

There is an extraordinary lack of sensitivity to basic concerns of individual freedom, and I think that's part of why we see very prominent conservatives beginning to speak out and stand up. If you look at the war on terrorism on one hand, where people are legitimately scared, and then you look at this war on drugs on the other hand, where people are almost in a drug craze and scared, what you realize is that this is a very ominous development, and people need to be aware of what is going on.

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