Mind Alteration: An Interview with Ethan Nadelmann

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 The New 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.

Reason: How do you explain the response to your 1988 article in Foreign Policy?

Nadelmann: My article would not have done it without Schmoke. His speech was really the key thing. Part of it was that there was this war-on-drugs hysteria going on, and journalists kept looking for stories, any story with a new angle. Plus, there was this silent view, held fairly widely, that there was something screwy with the war on drugs. There were enough people around who realized that it struck a chord.

Reason: In what ways has the drug-policy debate changed since 1988? What did the reaction to Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders's remarks about legalization show?

Nadelmann: Now the legalization issue is being played less for entertainment value and more as a serious thing. Whereas before we were piggybacking this war-on-drugs craze, now that's died away, and there's a much more substantive interest in drug-policy alternatives. When Schmoke said it, the reaction was, "Oh my God, did you hear what he said?" There were a lot of jokes about him being a one term mayor. With Elders, you had the talking heads on the Sunday morning programs and mayors, from Frank Jordan in San Francisco to Sharon Pratt Kelly in Washington, all saying, "Look, what's wrong with talking about this stuff?"

What did she say? She said legalization would reduce crime, which seems pretty clear. She said the Europeans are doing some interesting things. Well, that's certainly the case; we should learn more about their "harm reduction" approach. And she said we should study it. So she put it out there in a way that was quite acceptable to people. If you look at the editorial pages, I bet you'd find much more support for what Elders said than for what Schmoke said six years ago.

More and more people are coming up to me and other people who speak on this issue and saying, "You know, four or five years ago, when I first heard it, I thought it was crazy. Now I think I agree with you." So a lot of people are changing their minds, as opposed to four or five years ago, when people would come up to me or Schmoke and say, "You know, I agreed with this all along."

Reason: How would you describe your politics? What aspects of libertarianism appeal to you, and what aspects trouble you?

Nadelmann: I vote for the Democratic Party pretty consistently, with an occasional protest vote for a Libertarian. My politics are fairly eclectic. They're probably more conventionally liberal than they are conventionally conservative. I'm sympathetic to a lot of what the ACLU does, but I don't agree with the whole social agenda. I identify more with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, but I'm definitely not comfortable, given a lot of the bullshit that they've put forward, especially on issues I care about.

On drugs, and crime generally, there's an over-emphasis on criminal justice approaches. The general trend toward the federalization of crime has been a big mistake. The Democrats are not more wrong than the Republicans in this area. The damage has been that they've followed the Republicans on a lot of these issues. They've essentially sold out their own principles. People like Charlie Rangel, [Sen.] Joe Biden, and [Rep.] Charlie Schumer use the drug issue as their way to be tough on crime.

The most important aspect of libertarianism to me is the focus on individual autonomy in areas that to me are the logical extension of First and Fourth Amendment rights—the ones that have to do with privacy especially. When you get into drugs and other vices, I like the notion of treating adults as fully responsible: on the one hand, giving them the freedom to make their own mistakes and pursue their own virtues and vices; on the other hand, holding people responsible for their behavior. There should not be an abundance of excuses for that type of stuff.

What's especially appealing is that the libertarians seem to have a coherent understanding of what individual autonomy means in the context of a complex society. That's what most motivates me. What I most care about is advancing this notion of individual autonomy. When women talk about having control over their own bodies vis-à-vis abortion, they should realize that's one and the same as talking about control over one's own consciousness vis-à-vis drugs. If people want the power to sell their bodies—the same thing. When gays and others talk about sexual privacy, once again it's the same thing. And all these freedoms are not fundamentally different from the freedoms of speech, press, and religion that most Americans now take for granted—but that were once as contentious as the right to control one's body and one's consciousness is now. Drugs are an integral dimension of that.

The emphasis of libertarians on property rights is something that I've never cared as much about. Yes, the privacy of one's home and one's property is very important. But the notion that we reach optimal solutions, whether based on some sort of cost-benefit analysis or on purely ideological grounds, by having the government uninvolved in economic transactions, is something I'm not persuaded about, although I haven't studied it in any great depth.

Reason: What is the main obstacle to getting people to think seriously about legalization? What is the most important thing that someone who is skeptical about legalization should know?

Nadelmann: The most important objective now—rhetorically, intellectually, and conceptually—is getting people to focus on prohibition as the problem, in the way that people saw alcohol prohibition as the problem. The fact of the matter is. it's a prohibition system, but most Americans don't think of it that way, because we've all grown up under it. We don't envision the alternative. The most important thing is to get people, when they hear about shootings in the street, to say, "Damn that prohibition," not "Damn those drugs." Or when they hear about the courts being overflooded and the prisons being overflooded and violent prisoners being let out, they should say, not "Damn drugs," but "Damn prohibition." Or when they hear about a rash of overdose deaths on the street, or the drug-AIDS connection, same thing. It s getting people to talk about it and think about it in those terms, to understand the analogy to alcohol prohibition.

The most important obstacle is this deep-seated fear of drugs that's very much analogous to the fear of communism. The roles that communism and drugs have played in American politics are quite similar. In the case of communism, there was an external threat, but the communists were not knocking on our doors. Drugs do come from abroad, but it's not as if we're being overwhelmed by these things. And yes, there were communist spies in this country, but there wasn't a commie under every bed. Yes, there is a drug problem in this country, but there isn't a drug addict in every corner. Invasion of the Body Snatchers symbolized communist brainwashing in the '50s; it symbolizes drug brainwashing and the capture of our children today. One of the core truths in Thomas Szasz's Ceremonial Chemistry is about the role that drugs play as a bogeyman in our society, in the same way that witches and Jews and others have in the past.

This deep-seated fear of drugs is totally inconsistent with the scientific evidence, and it's inconsistent to a large extent with people's personal experience. There's an analogy here with homosexuals. Thirty years ago, almost everyone in the country knew someone who was gay. They just didn't know they knew somebody who was gay. Now they do. Well, 60 to 70 million Americans have violated the drug laws; everybody knows somebody who has used illegal drugs. But not everyone knows that they know them.

Of the huge part of our generation who have used drugs, how many have told their parents, to this day, even though they are now successful professionals and parents and what have you? There's a need to come out of the closet and talk openly about drug use. As things stand, the only kind of use that is visible is either the dysfunctional drug use or the media portraits of it. So there's this incredibly skewed view of what drugs are about.

I think that may be changing. I've noticed a real loosening in the past year in terms of people talking about their drug use, an opening up about that. And you can't get away from the fact that we now have a president who smoked but didn't inhale and a vice president who smoked and did inhale. It's probably the case that half the administration has used illicit drugs. You can only sustain the hypocrisy so long.

Reason: What sort of mistakes have you seen advocates of reform make when they're addressing a general audience? Are there mistakes that libertarians in particular tend to make?

Nadelmann: A lot of people are looking for a way out of the current morass but don't know what to do with the radical alternative. They just don't see how to get from here to there. And the libertarians have maybe not thought enough about how you move people down that spectrum, because a lot of those intermediate steps involve compromise measures that are inherently distasteful to libertarians.

On the positive side, the libertarians are articulating a pretty clear set of principles which resonate with a certain sector of the country and which are important. So I'm glad the libertarians are out there, even though occasionally I have to deal with the people who say, "Well, you want to sell crack in candy stores," because that's what Milton Friedman or Thomas Szasz would do. I have to say, "No, that's not the only approach; there are a whole range of other things, and I don't even know if that's the ideal." It may in fact be the ultimate goal. Their assumption that no one is going to buy those products, more or less, because other products are around may in fact be true.

Probably the most serious mistake I've seen is the tendency of so many academics and others to write for a very limited audience. I've always been conscious of the need to write for a wider audience. Even when I wrote for Science or Foreign Policy, I tried to write in a way that was accessible. I'll spend the time to write something for Rolling Stone rather than a more narrow, academic journal.

Reason: Should advocates of reform tie the issue of illegal drugs to the issue of prescription drugs?

Nadelmann: I took a poll of the Princeton Working Group, asking how many people believe that we should eliminate the doctor's role as a gatekeeper. This is the fundamental element of the prescription drug system, which really lies at the heart of drug control, as Thomas Szasz and others have recognized. The group was almost evenly split.

On a broad rhetorical level, the relationship between prohibition and the prescription drug system is beyond the understanding or imagination of a lot of the people who casually think about this issue. They just haven't seen the connection. I'm not tempted to use it in my own speeches. except for the most sophisticated audiences. People are so accustomed to the idea that doctors have control over this. But one of the things that we're going to do at the Center [on Markets and Morals] is a seminar series that raises the issue of whether we need a prescription drug system.

Reason: In an article you wrote for the Summer 1992 issue of Daedalus, you note that the "public health" approach to drugs has totalitarian implications if you follow it to its logical conclusion. Yet you support this approach to some extent. How do you decide which public-health measures are acceptable and which go too far?

Nadelmann: It's a matter of how far it infringes on individual autonomy. I see the slippery slope. It's a matter of drawing the line somewhere. I'm inclined to say we should look for restrictions which infringe less on individual autonomy.

I look on the notion of a totally free market in, say, cigarettes, without the government playing any sort of inhibitory role, as not a desirable thing. I actually think the government should play some role in shaping society—especially the external environment, but even in encouraging people to act in their own interests—but that it should do so with a much softer hand than it's using in a whole range of areas.

I'm willing to use the tax system to discourage consumption among kids, and even among adults to some extent. But I'd be wary of using more invasive measures. I'm sympathetic to the idea of banning vending machines for cigarettes. But then [ACLU Executive Director] Ira Glasser says, "First you ban cigarette machines. The next thing you'll be banning is condom machines." So he sees that slippery slope, and I see where he's coming from. I'm undecided. Same thing with advertising. One of the biggest problems for libertarians, it seems to me, is how you devise methods to limit access by kids that don't infringe too much on adults.

I think it's legitimate for government to play a role in trying to discourage people from using cigarettes. If they want to put the information out there, that sounds fine to me. But I find incredibly distasteful the way that they're demonizing cigarette users now. What's happening now, with [FDA Commissioner David] Kessler, is they're heading in a prohibitionist direction, which is something I would regard as very bad on both policy grounds and ethical grounds.

Reason: You've written that drug policy should minimize the harm caused both by drugs and by government intervention. What are the weaknesses of this cost-benefit approach?

Nadelmann: The main weakness is how you define costs and benefits. The economists don't identify issues like privacy, freedom, tolerance. They give these things zero value. And to me, those are very significant.

Reason: In the Daedalus article, you propose a mail-order system for drugs that the Princeton Working Group has discussed. How would that work, and what advantages do you think it has over a more free market approach?

Nadelmann: We're trying to balance three competing sets of interests. You want to minimize the negative consequences of prohibition. But on the other hand, I'm persuaded by evidence from the public health field that restrictions on the availability of drugs like alcohol and tobacco are effective in reducing the negative consequences to the users themselves and to others. There's also a tension between the individual's right to consume drugs and a community's right to control its external environment. And then there's the fact that we live in a federal system; ideally, we want local approaches to local problems. You don't necessarily want the same drug policy everywhere, but state policies can't vary so much that we generate enormous interstate smuggling problems.

Then the question becomes, "What's the minimum way to accommodate these concerns?" You need an individual adult right of consumption, anywhere in the country, and you need a legally protected right to obtain drugs of known purity, potency, and quality—also anywhere in the country. The minimum way to accommodate these two rights is a system where you can call up and order drugs by mail. Anyone would have the right to obtain this stuff and to possess it anywhere in the country, even though you might not be able to sell it or market it out in the open, and you might not be able to use it out in the open.

This is a minimal system. It guts the criminal side of things. And it gets past concerns about advertising, about drugs in every corner store, and so on. The individual right to obtain and possess this stuff, and even transfer it in small amounts, is essentially sacrosanct. It also eliminates the role of the doctor; you can obtain any drugs through the system. On the other hand, it allows communities to control their external environment.

Reason: Might some municipalities allow an open retail trade, including taverns?

Nadelmann: You might have modern-day opium dens or drug cooperatives. But the state of Mississippi might remain totally dry for external purposes. It might prohibit advertising, prohibit public consumption, prohibit sale in taverns. Yet every adult would have the right to possess and consume in private.

Reason: Would the mail-order source be the government, or would there be competing private suppliers?

Nadelmann: I haven't thought about it. But to me, it's not fundamental whether it's governmental or nongovernmental.

Reason: You've noted that competition encourages innovation and movement toward better, less harmful drugs. With a government monopoly, there wouldn't be much room for that.

Nadelmann: Right. I want to find ways to promote less dangerous products. It might very well be private producers, and there could be multiple distributors.

Reason: In his book Against Excess, Mark Kleiman proposes a phased-in ban on tobacco, coupled with a system of "grudging toleration" for alcohol and marijuana, including drug licenses and rationing. What do you think of that approach?

Nadelmann: I think prohibiting access to tobacco products by adults is a mistake, both on policy grounds and on ethical grounds. I think it will generate a black market; it will create a lot of the same problems we've had with other prohibitions. And I think it's immoral to punish, and especially incarcerate people for making that sort of decision.

Licensing is an intriguing idea. Suppose that each time you buy a drug, you have to pass a little 10 question test on drug safety, which every junkie in town would be able to pass in two minutes, once they knew the basic answers. Or you could avoid the test by getting a license that shows you've already passed a test. Mark [Kleiman] would have the government revoking people's licenses for misbehavior. I'm not sure that's the way to go. I'd prefer to have something that resembles a license test that people could easily pass but that at least would ensure they were aware of basic precautions and other information.

Reason: What are the prospects for drug reform during the next decade?

Nadelmann: The AIDS issue has been a blessing in disguise—a horrible blessing, but nonetheless it gives real momentum to a whole range of initiatives. We've got to put abstinence from drugs on the back burner, because AIDS is more important. Although the U.S. has been painfully slow to accept this, harm reduction is getting a serious push. You see it abroad—in Europe and Australia—and it's made some inroads here. Fifty cities in the country have needle-exchange programs, compared with one or two five years ago.

The replacement of the Bush administration with the Clinton administration was generally a good thing. It brought in a lot of new blood, new thinking. Lee Brown is not what I would call a desirable drug czar, but he's no William Bennett, either. There's more room for consideration of alternatives.

Progress in the rights of homosexuals, and increasing concerns about maintaining privacy in a technologically sophisticated environment, may redound to the benefit of the drug issue. I think also that the war on cigarette users—if you want to call it that—is raising the issue of individual autonomy vis-à-vis drug use in a context to which tens of millions of Americans still relate. And the more that cigarettes get tarred as a drug, the more that connection is going to become prominent. You're going to have tens of millions of Americans beginning to identify more and more with the heroin and cocaine and marijuana users. At the same time, you're going to have these arguments about individual rights and the freedom to use drugs in your own home.

If amphetamine really starts to come on big in this country, that's a drug that's pretty hard to control. It doesn't come from abroad; it's domestically produced; it's easily produced; pretty dumb people can make it. The government's capacity to control it may turn out to be remarkably limited. So are we then going to go to widespread drug testing, or are we going to be forced to look at some alternatives?

There's a sense that the drug war has proven its failure. Five or six years ago, people would say, "Well, we haven't really tried it." It's hard to say that with credibility any more. People tend to get bored with old ideas. and the war on drugs is becoming an old idea. There's a kind of natural pendulum or circularity, where people begin to think that change is inevitable. And that's going to happen in the drug area.