Mind Alteration

Drug-policy scholar Ethan Nadelmann on turning people against drug prohibition

In 1988 the conventional wisdom about U.S. drug policy could be summed up in two dogmatic phrases: "zero tolerance" and "Just Say No." Republicans and Democrats were competing to see who could be tougher on drugs. Doubts about the wisdom of prohibition--let alone proposals for legalization--were beyond the pale of acceptable discussion.

That climate started to change in the spring, after two respectable people publicly criticized the war on drugs and said it was time to examine altematives. One of them was Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who told a group of mayors and police chiefs in April that the drug war was a failure and said drug use should be decriminalized. The other was a young Princeton professor named Ethan Nadelmann, who attacked prohibition and made the case for legalization in the March issue of Foreign Policy. Nadelmann argued that drug- control efforts had skewed U.S. foreign policy while accomplishing remarkably little, and he noted that most of the harms associated with the drug trade--including violence, corruption, disease, and crime--were caused or exacerbated by prohibition.

The juxtaposition of the Schmoke and Nadelmann critiques, coming amid growing antidrug hysteria, attracted intense interest from the mainstream news media. In late April, Nadelmann came back from a meeting in Mexico to find 20 messages on his answering machine, including calls from The New Republic, local radio and television stations, and ABC's Nightline. "The first TV appearance of my life was on Nightline with Kurt Schmoke and [Rep.] Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.)," Nadelmann recalls. "The next day I came to my office, and the phone list was 40 calls long, including TheNew York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek. There was this incredible media onslaught."

During the next few months, Nadelmann debated drug warriors on Donahue, Larry King Live, and various other talk shows. He began receiving invitations to speak. At last count, he had given speeches on drug legalization in 31 states and 13 countries. In addition to the piece in Foreign Policy, he has written articles on legalization for The Public Interest, Science, Daedalus, The New Republic, American Heritage, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. (He also contributed to a forum on "America After Prohibition" in the October 1988 issue of REASON.)

In Nadelmann the drug legalization cause has found a spokesman who is thoughtful, personable, and quick on his feet. As a centrist, an expert on international law enforcement (he is the author of Cops Across Borders: The Internationalization of U.S. Criminal Law Enforcement), and an assistant professor at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, he has helped bring credibility to a viewpoint long associated with hippies and wild-eyed libertarians. His relaxed, reasonable manner contrasts with the bombastic rhetoric of many drug warriors and helps him communicate with the disparate factions of the reform movement.

In 1990 with funding from the Smart Family Foundation, Nadelmann assembled a panel of 18 drug-policy scholars into the Princeton Working Group on the Future of Drug Use and Alternatives to Drug Prohibition. The working group, which meets periodically, plans to produce two reports, one on short-term "harm reduction" measures, such as needle-exchange programs and marijuana decriminalization, the other on long-term strategies, including a variety of legalization schemes. Nadelmann also serves on the boards of the Drug Policy Foundation and the International Anti-Prohibitionist League.

This summer Nadelmann will leave Princeton to direct the Center on Markets and Morals, a new think tank funded by billionaire investor George Soros. The center will study a range of vice issues, including gambling and prostitution, but its main focus will be drug policy. Soros's goal, Nadelmann says, is to invigorate and support a broader debate on drug policy and to encourage a shift from drug war to "drug peace."

REASON Managing Editor Jacob Sullum interviewed Nadelmann in mid-April. In conversation Nadelmann is focused and calm, careful to make distinctions and allow for nuances. He is quick to admit when he has not thought an issue through or does not know enough to form an opinion. He is comfortable with the cost-benefit language of policy analysts yet firm in his support for individual autonomy, the value that animates his attack on drug prohibition.

Reason: How did you first become interested in drug policy?

Nadelmann: In 1983 I was working on a law degree and a Ph.D. in political science at Harvard. Until that point, I had focused on international relations, U.S. foreign policy, and Middle East politics. I was finding the subject depressing. The field was increasingly crowded, and I was finding it hard to relate to my law degree and legal studies. I was also at the point where I was going to have to learn the languages to be really serious about it. I was looking for something that would combine law and foreign policy, something that was interesting and had research potential, that was not a crowded field. I had always had an interest in the drug issue and crime, a sort of fascination with it. Part of it was having been one of a generation that smoked pot and experimented with other drugs. My dad was a rabbi, and I grew up with a very ethical background in many respects, seeing myself as a law-abiding person. And you go to college and you smoke pot, and you're struck by the fact that you could lose your freedom for engaging in an activity which seems entirely innocuous. Reading John Stuart Mill in my sophomore year clicked with that in certain ways.

Reason: Was there a point in your research when you became convinced that the illicit drugs should be legalized, or did the research confirm your initial views?

Nadelmann: I was inclined toward the legalization of marijuana and inclined toward the notion that possession and use of drugs should be legal in environments that were not harmful to other people. I was inclined that way, but I hadn't thought it through. I didn't know much about heroin or cocaine. In '83, '84, I started doing research on U.S. international drug-control policies and on the broader range of issues that lie at the intersection of U.S. foreign policy and criminal justice. I published my first article in '85 in the Washington Quarterly. I really pulled my punches, but I basically said that U.S. international drug policy didn't seem to be working very well.

At that point, I was a consultant to the Bureau of International Narcotics Matters in the State Department, working on a classified report on international efforts against drug- related money laundering. Between that job and my research as a graduate student, I traveled to Europe and South America, interviewing drug enforcement officials. Then I would go back to Cambridge, and I would do historical work on these issues. I began to get more of a historical perspective, to understand the racist origins of drug laws, learn more about the late l9th century and what drug use was like then. I began coming up with more of an analysis that sorted out the limits, costs, and consequences of prohibition.

In 1985 I wrote my first legalization paper. which was subtitled "The Radical Sound of Common Sense." I sent it to Commentary, and I got a very nice note from Norman Podhoretz, saying, "Thank you for your interesting article, but we remain firmly on the other side." In retrospect, I was very lucky that they didn't publish it, because it was a sort of sophomoric first take. But I circulated it among friends, and that was the first time I put those ideas down on paper.

The first talk I gave where I explicitly attacked prohibition and suggested that legalization might be the answer was in June 1987, just before I left Harvard, at Ft. Bolling Air Force Base in Washington. It was a conference sponsored by the Defense Intelligence College, where the audience consisted mostly of intelligence analysts and military people. I was on a panel with the number-two guy in the State Department narcotics bureau, the number-two guy in the DEA, the head of drug enforcement at the FBI, the head of the Marine Corps's anti-drug program, and Mark Moore, my dissertation adviser. I said, "Look, let's face it. The problem here is drug prohibition. You're essentially no different from the Prohibition agents of the 1920s." People started hissing at me, saying, "What's he doing here? Get him out of here." It was quite a time.

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