Interview with Dr. Ethan Nadelmann at the DPA Conference

On November 9 ? 12, the US-based Drug Policy Alliance ( will be hosting its bi-annual International Drug Policy Conference in Long Beach, California. The Alliance is the largest drug policy reform organization in the US and has been responsible for significant policy reform at the federal, state and city levels. The DPA electronic newsletter is a major source of international drug policy information and well worth subscribing to.
Kirk Tousaw, general counsel to the BCMP, is attending the conference on behalf of the BCMP, Cannabis Culture magazine, Pot-TV and the Free the BC3 movement. Kirk is also speaking on a panel titled ?Oh Cannabis? and will be discussing the history of government cannabis research in Canada, with a particular focus on the recent papers released by the Health Officers Council of BC and the City of Vancouver. His presentation is titled ?Shifting Paradigms: from criminality to compassion.?

A few weeks ago, Kirk sat down with Ethan Nadlemann, the Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Dr. Nadelmann?s range of knowledge is nothing short of amazing, and this is only part one of the interview. Part two will follow along with a report of the conference proceedings, so check Cannabis Culture online regularly.

Interview with Dr. Ethan Nadelmann

Kirk: Hi Ethan, thanks for agreeing to talk to me. The DPA has an international drug policy reform conference coming up and Cannabis Culture readers are very interested ? what can you tell us about this exciting event?

Ethan: Well Kirk, I can tell you that ever since 1987 or 1988 when the DPA first started holding these meetings this has really been the leading gathering in North America of people believing that the war on drugs is doing more harm than good. When the Drug Policy Foundation was created in the late 1980s, the founders described the organization described as a ?loyal opposition to the war on drugs.?

Then in 2000 when the Lindesmith Center merged with DPF to create the Drug Policy Alliance we?ve taken it to a new level. A biannual conference, we were in New Mexico in 2001, New Jersey in 2003 and, this year, what we are doing in Long Beach is making this less the ?DPA conference? and much more the ?movement conference.? The DPA is hosting and organizing but it is going to be co-sponsored with most of other leading drug policy reform organizations throughout country as well as range of organizations sympathetic to our objectives.

So it is going to be much more about creating time slots for other organizations to have board meetings, member meetings, breakout session for their own purposes. We expect over 1000 people to be there. It?s going to have much more of an international orientation than seen at conferences in many years. There will be good representation from Latin America, Canada, Australia, Western Europe, Central Asia and the former Soviet Union. So it should be really quite a remarkable gathering. This will be the best 3-day crash course in drug policy issues that one could possibly be exposed to. Speaking with my former professor?s hat, this would be equivalent of taking a whole course in 3 or 4 days.

Kirk: That?s pretty exciting, Ethan, and I?m looking forward to being there. What else can you tell CC readers about the DPA?

Dr. Ethan NadelmannDr. Ethan NadelmannEthan: Kirk, the DPA is really a ?connect-the-dots organization.? It is really a big tent in this sense that we have, if you look around the country, 4 types of drug policy reform orgs. First, issue-specific ones that focus just on medical marijuana or just on marijuana reform or just on harm reduction or just on psychedelics, mandatory minimums, methamphetamines, etc. Secondly, you have the constituency-based orgs such as clergy against drug war, police against the drug war, lawyers against the drug war. Thirdly, there are local or regional organizations [such as the BCMP]. There are probably drug policy reform organizations in more than half the US States plus provinces in Canada and so on. Lastly, there are a few organizations that really address almost the entire range of issues and which take as their focus any area of policy or society where the war on drugs is screwing things up.

The war on drugs is creating over-incarceration, the unnecessary spread of HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis C, unnecessary fatal overdose deaths, the destruction of the environment and inadequate treatment of pain with opiod medications. And so, for DPA, we are the organization addressing a whole range of issues, prioritizing among them, and doing our best to try to pull all this stuff together. We want people to come into the movement and the conference because they care passionately about marijuana but have them come out full-fledged drug policy reformers. Or they might come in knowing a lot about HIV or needle exchange but come away learned about medical marijuana, sentencing reform or the racism of drug war. And that?s really one of our defining attributes both in terms of the organization and what we hope to achieve during the conference.

Kirk: Many of our readers are concerned primary with the marijuana issue. Where do you see cannabis policy reform in the overall spectra of drug policy reform ? is it the thin edge of the wedge that leads reform or is it a tangential issue?

Ethan: No, cannabis law reform is central to drug policy reform in US and, to some extent, around the world. Let me give your readers a few frameworks to think about this. First, for the Drug Policy Alliance, we are not, writ large, a legalization organization. But with respect to cannabis we are. We have a formal organizational position supporting not just medical marijuana but, in fact, an end to marijuana prohibition.

The DPA supports a policy of tax, control, regulate and educate. We have a Board of Director?s consensus in support of that position. For us it is the only substance where we have clear legalization position. We don?t take a position against legalization regarding the other drugs, of course, but we also don?t have consensus in favor. With cannabis we do.

Second, in terms of priorities, cannabis policy reform is one of the top three goals. The others include the issue of sentencing reform to reduce over-incarceration of prisons with drug law violations and, third, harm reduction. We need to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C resulting from dealing with these problems in wrong way. Those are the big 3 priorities. Our core policy principle is that people should not be punished solely for what they put into their bodies absent harm-to-others. That is the core principle that we are fighting for and one that resonates very powerfully with the cannabis reform movement.

I think beyond that, there is a sense that if we can remove cannabis from the war on drugs then it is possible that the entire war on drug crumbles. That, essentially, the war on cannabis is the element of the drug war which brings it home to the greatest number of people in both the US and in Canada. Half of all drug arrests in America are for cannabis. Roughly 750,000 out of 1.5 million annual arrests. In many parts of the country cannabis is the only thing that people are getting arrested for. Also, if cannabis is no longer an offence the multi-billion dollar drug testing industry probably goes under because cannabis essentially subsidizes all of the rest of the drug testing. It makes almost no sense to do drug testing because the other substances don?t show up.

Kirk TousawKirk TousawKirk: The others bleed out of your system too quickly.

Ethan: If you look at 30 or 40 million Americans that violated drug laws last year, the overwhelming majority of those were with cannabis. Everything else ? all the cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines ? these add up to a fraction of the cumulative cannabis use in the US and Canada.

Kirk: The percentage is even greater here in Canada where cannabis offences comprise 75 % of all drug arrests.

Ethan: Wow. The US number is about 750,000 per year for cannabis and, of those, roughly 87 or 88 percent are for possession only. So we have about 650,000 arrests each year for cannabis possession and another 100,000 or less for other cannabis offences.

There is some fear, for example, in the harm reduction movement that if you legalize cannabis the full brunt of drug war will be borne by people of color and by poor people involved with other drugs. But the more powerful argument is that if you take cannabis out of drug war the rest really just starts to crumble. Cannabis prohibition is really subsidizing the drug war in terms of political culture, finances, and everything else. Another thing is that, if you look in Europe, you see in last 15-20 years cannabis reform and harm reduction really moving forward on parallel tracks. The bigger issue of sentencing reform that we have in the US is not a major issue in Europe. So, part of the discussion of cannabis and decriminalization or de facto regulation of possession and the market, is that type of thinking then begins to influence thinking about other drugs as well.

Kirk: When you think about a situation in which cannabis becomes a legally regulated commodity ? tax, control, regulate, educate ? and the sky does not fall and the all horror stories we?ve been told by prohibitionist for so many years do not come true, then perhaps people begin to think that if it doomsday did not happen with cannabis regulation then maybe it will not happen for other substances.

Ethan: I think that is right. Because the next issues that will pop up are two. First, with respect to ecstasy, entheogens and hallucinogens where, although some people can have very traumatic and terrible experiences, for most the substances are highly non-addictive. You have to have a real will to get addicted to psychedelics. Secondly, it is possible you would have that kind of thinking emerge with respect to lower-potency version of drugs that are now illegal. So, for example, low-potency forms of coca-based products like coca teas or tonics ? things like that. You might see a cannabis regulatory system emerge as something of a model for some of these other substances down the road.


As I finish this article I am on a plane bound for Long Beach and the DPA conference. I am excited to meet and network with activists from around the world as we move toward our common goal of an evidence-based, rational and compassionate approach to substance use. Please check back soon for part two of the interview with Ethan Nadelmann and be sure to visit the DPA website at