Why Trump Can't Ruin Retirement For The Nation's Top Drug Policy Reformer

Ethan Nadelmann is moving on after decades of helping change U.S. drug laws. He's confident the Trump administration can't destroy his legacy.

Over the course of his career, Ethan Nadelmann has gotten used to winning. The 60-year-old has been actively shaping U.S. drug policy since 1996, when he helped organize a ballot initiative to make California the first state to legalize medical marijuana. More than two decades later, 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use, recreational marijuana is legal in eight of those states and in the nation’s capital, and support for legalization stands at an all-time high.

For the past 17 years, Nadelmann has overseen this progress as the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for the reform of drug laws. His tenure at the organization has been marked not only by numerous victories against marijuana prohibition, but by much broader efforts to tackle the consequences of a trillion-dollar global drug war that has failed by all observable metrics. Nadelmann has helped open people’s eyes to the problems of mass incarceration, and the damage caused by the stigmatization and criminalization of drug use. At the same time, he’s successfully championed a more humane approach to policy that confronts decades of racial and economic injustice in drug enforcement.

Last November, as Nadelmann quietly prepared to announce his retirement from DPA, he attended an election-night party hoping to celebrate one final triumph with the group. Nadelmann recalls watching the returns with billionaire political donor George Soros, one of DPA’s biggest funders, and being struck by a sense of dread as it became clear Hillary Clinton was going to lose.

“It was this weird night where I was devastated by the broader national political news ― and meanwhile, with all these marijuana victories coming through, not only am I not able to express any joy, I’m not even able to feel any joy,” Nadelmann later told HuffPost.

By the end of the night, eight states had legalized marijuana for either recreational or medical use. Donald Trump had also become president-elect, leaving Nadelmann to choose between going ahead with retirement or remaining at DPA and fighting to preserve the drug policy gains he’d helped secure.

Nadelmann chose the former, and in January he announced that he’d be stepping down from DPA in April. Two weeks later, the U.S. Senate confirmed Jeff Sessions ― a staunch opponent of marijuana whom Nadelmann has called a “drug war dinosaur ― as Trump’s attorney general.

The Trump administration has given drug policy reformers little to celebrate in its first 100 days. But for all the concern over Sessions, who’s raised the possibility of a federal crackdown on state-legal marijuana, Nadelmann remains confident that progress on drug policy will be safe, even as he takes a more diminished role in the movement.

“Most of this will not be reversed in the foreseeable future,” Nadelmann said. “Drug law reform is going to continue to advance.”

Ethan Nadelmann, seen here in 2013, retired from the Drug Policy Alliance in April.
Ethan Nadelmann, seen here in 2013, retired from the Drug Policy Alliance in April.

Nadelmann acknowledges that DPA will have plenty of work to do in his absence, but he believes the organization has already made substantial strides in swaying the American public toward a progressive vision of drug policy reform.

This involves more than convincing people that the drug war has failed ― a view that most Americans support anyway, according to polling in recent years.

To understand DPA’s ethos, it’s necessary to view drug policy on a spectrum, says Nadelmann, with “punitive, draconian policies” on one end, and completely “free-market libertarian policies” on the other. Progressive drug policies are grounded in principles of decriminalization, legal regulation, human rights, public health and harm reduction, with the organizing belief that people should have sovereignty over their own minds and bodies. The goal is to find policies that don’t themselves create major risks of increased drug abuse or criminality.

“The optimal drug policy seeks to reduce the negative consequences of drugs, and to reduce the negative consequences of prohibitionist policies,” Nadelmann said. “Everything that we advance is driven by solid scientific evidence, or by empirical evidence or by economic analysis, followed by the ethical or ideological element that’s grounded in human rights.”

This pitch has gotten more appealing in recent years, but in the past, the drug policy reform movement suffered from public misperceptions about its mission, Nadelmann said. Many mistakenly believed the only options in the debate were continuing to wage a ruthless drug war or legalizing all illegal substances. On one side were drug warriors ― law enforcement officials and tough-on-crime politicians. On the other were drug war critics ― either “cold-hearted libertarians,” as Nadelmann put it, or reformers often accused of being interested in change only because they themselves used drugs. That was a false dichotomy, said Nadelmann.

“We’re social justice libertarians,” he said. “We typically care a lot more about issues of fairness and economic redistribution than libertarians do, but we care a lot more about issues of personal liberty than most liberals do.”

As the drug policy reform movement has grown, it’s illustrated the wide array of options available for dealing with matters of drug use and abuse. President Barack Obama’s administration was mildly receptive toward certain progressive initiatives, but the vast majority of drug policy successes have happened outside the purview of the federal government.

Municipalities have been slowly advancing on decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs, for example. States have also dramatically improved access to drug treatment programs and to naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug that has saved countless lives. And there’s been growing bipartisan support for needle exchange programs ― now operating in at least 35 states ― to stop the spread of bloodborne disease.

More humane drug laws are only one part of DPA’s mission. The group has also pushed statewide efforts to reform controversial drug enforcement tactics that allow police to seize cash and property from people suspected of drug crimes, often without evidence. In California, DPA campaigned for legislation that reduced some low-level nonviolent felonies, including drug possession, to misdemeanors. In New Jersey, the group supported a bill that has eliminated the use of cash bail for minor drug offenses and other low-level crimes ― which means poorer defendants don’t have to sit in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay for their freedom before trial.

DPA’s advocacy work also offers an alternative to the “tough on crime” rhetoric once frequently heard in Congress. Lawmakers are now discussing ways to reduce the prison population, step back from mandatory minimum sentences, and support efforts to rehabilitate offenders rather than punishing them with increasingly harsh penalties. Those sorts of measures, far outside the political mainstream just two decades ago, made it into both Republican and Democratic Party platforms in 2016 and currently enjoy broad bipartisan support in Congress. 

Drug policy reform is a matter of incremental reform toward an ultimate vision. Ethan Nadelmann

These achievements suggest to Nadelmann that he and his colleagues are winning hearts and minds in their effort to end the drug war.

“In America, we’ve been so culturally, historically and ideologically tied to this belief in abstinence-only approaches to dealing with drug use and addiction ― the notion that sobriety from mind-altering substances is not just a legal but a moral mandate,” he said. “It’s a quasi-religious view that my body is essentially God’s sacred vessel, and it is my obligation to my Lord and my maker not to pollute this vessel of his with these psychoactive plants and chemicals.”

It’s that ideology, Nadelmann says, that led the United States to outlaw alcohol in 1920, and to adopt a similarly clumsy approach to other drugs over the past several decades. That attitude has also made some Americans resistant to the idea that drug policy can demonstrate compassion for users.

With that skepticism finally starting to fade, though, Nadelmann sees an exciting future for drug policy, which will likely have to grapple with new challenges and difficult questions.

Chief among them could be the nation’s approach to legalizing drugs other than marijuana. Nadlemann believes it’s necessary to address this thorny issue on a substance-by-substance basis. If the nation is ever going to see the marijuana legalization model as one that could be applied to other drugs, Nadelmann says, the government must first demonstrate that it can adequately exercise its regulatory responsibilities toward pot.

Nadelmann has higher hopes for a national policy that would take its cues from Portugal, which decriminalized the use and possession of small amounts of drugs in 2001. Portugal soon saw lower levels of drug use, a decrease in new HIV infections, and far fewer overdose deaths than in neighboring countries, and its policy move has been widely regarded as a success.

As for the opioid epidemic claiming tens of thousands of lives each year in the U.S., Nadelmann says there’s an urgent need for more innovative solutions. He points to a Swiss model that involves prescribing heroin to people battling addiction and providing them with safe-injection sites where they can be monitored or get access to treatment. A number of U.S. cities are looking into creating these facilities, though the idea has met some resistance.

“Drug policy reform is a matter of incremental reform toward an ultimate vision,” Nadelmann said. “It’s not as if there’s any Berlin Wall of drug prohibition that’s gonna come crashing down.”

While Nadelmann downplays the possibility of a full-scale federal assault on legal marijuana, he says there are still a number of “insidious” ways Sessions could undermine the momentum of a fledgling weed industry.

Trump has yet to appoint his U.S. attorneys, who could prove to be hostile to marijuana reform. At Sessions’ direction, they could partner with local sheriffs and prosecutors who oppose legalization, and target bigger players in the industry to sow fear and intimidate other state-legal businesses, Nadelmann said.

And while Sessions has shown no immediate signs of reversing Obama-era guidance de-emphasizing marijuana enforcement, he hasn’t committed to keeping that guidance in place, either. Even if he did, Nadelmann says, the attorney general could interpret the guidance in a stricter manner, allowing him to ratchet up enforcement.

Whatever route Sessions decides to take will ultimately depend on how much “chaos” he wants to inflict on state marijuana operations, Nadelmann said.

It’s a reminder that drug policy reformers should be ready to defend their gains from potential attacks in the coming years. But after spending decades building a strong foundation for change, it seems like the movement is prepared to continue on its successful trajectory.

“Trump and Sessions are giving us some blowback, but essentially I and DPA have become ever more influential and ever more part of the national dialogue ― not by changing what we believe or what we advocate, but by simply persisting with what it is we say and do,” Nadelmann said. “What’s changed, really, is the way the government and the public look at these issues.”