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Legalize all drugs? The man behind loosening pot laws in US eyes new goal

Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, at home in New York City on Monday, Nov. 18.
Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, at home in New York City on Monday, Nov. 18.John Brecher / NBC News

When the ball drops this New Year’s Eve, America’s first aboveboard cannabis markets will rise in Colorado and Washington. Uruguay is expected to follow as the first country to legalize the one-time devil weed. But what unites these efforts — along with 20 states that allow marijuana as medicine — isn’t only an evolved approach to drugs. It’s one man: Ethan Nadelmann, the world’s roving prime minister of pot. 

The ginger-hued, Harvard-educated son of a rabbi is a relative unknown to most Americans, but his work in the last two decades is liable to end up in their children’s history books. The 56-year-old or his organization — the Drug Policy Alliance — has authored, aided, or helped fund every progressive pot law in the Americas, from California’s breakthrough medical marijuana law in 1996 to the historic reforms going live in 2014. 

“I think we’ve hit the tipping point with marijuana,” Nadelmann told a cheering, two-finger-whistling conference crowd last month in Denver. “Two states down, 48 to go, and hopefully one country down, 200 to go.” 

While marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the culture is changing rapidly, and Nadelmann is poised for perhaps his most influential year yet. He’s not a pot-smoker himself, nor an evangelist for drug-taking in general, but he believes that drug policy should make users safer and not criminalize them.    

That means embracing over-the-counter sales of marijuana and accepting a boom in pot’s popularity. In August, the Justice Department allowed Colorado and Washington’s experiments in free-market pot to go forward, pledging a backseat approach, assuming certain benchmarks for control are maintained. Now, at least 11 states are considering their own legal weed laws.

“The momentum is huge,” says Nadelmann, who oversees 65 employees, offices in five states, and a $13 million dollar war chest.

A vision that goes far beyond pot

But Nadelmann has much more than just legalized weed riding on the success of Colorado and Washington. In recent speeches and a series of exchanges with NBC, he laid out a more progressive long game, a vision for drug policy reform that goes far beyond pot. 

At a standing-room-only talk at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs earlier this month, Nadelmann delivered an antic hour-long stump speech for broader legalization.

“I’m always telling my marijuana reform allies, when they say we need to legalize marijuana and get tougher on the other drugs, ‘shut the hell up,’” he said, returning to form as the Princeton professor he was before turning to drug policy two decades ago. “We don’t need to end one discrimination and prohibition to double down on another.”

“It’s absolutely pivotal,” he continued, “for building a broader movement for freedom and justice that we treat this thing as of-a-piece.” 

The whole, of course, is safe and legal access to all drugs. Cocaine. Heroin. Hash. Ecstasy. You name it, Nadelmann wants people to have the right to get it, hold it, use it and even pass it in small quantities. The only country that comes close to such a program is Portugal, which in 2001 decriminalized the getting, having, and taking of a 10-day supply of any drug. 

But Portugal doesn’t go far enough for Nadelmann, personally, because while it allows use, it prohibits distribution, denying people a way to get high without navigating the twilight economy of illicit dealing. He wants to move drug-users out of the criminal justice system entirely, relocating them in the realm of public health.

He often says he represents everything from decriminalization to outright legalization. While the terms are subject to scribbles and tweaks, the former usually means making drug-use a finable civil offense, akin to jaywalking only with counseling involved. The latter is Colorado and Washington — only for all drugs.    

At a minimum, Nadelmann tells NBC, “people should not be punished for possessing a small amount of any drug.” He doesn’t rule out the full-blown legalization of everything, although he remains more skeptical than some of his libertarian allies. He sees drug policy along a continuum, from “lock’em up, hang’em, pull out their fingernails, Singapore, Saudi Arabia” all the way down to “essentially no controls whatsoever, maybe a little for kids.”

Right now, he says, American drug policy is way too close to the hang’em end of the spectrum. The Obama administration has won plaudits for its “public health” approach to drug policy, including more spending on prevention and treatment. But Nadelmann says it’s mostly smoke and mirrors, an attempt to co-opt the rhetoric of reform without adopting the policies.

For Nadelmann, the fight is personal

As clear as he is about his end game, Nadelmann is still mulling the details of implementation. He calls for “legal access,” but doesn’t say whether it should be provided by doctors, delivered by mail, doled out in private cooperatives, or administered by the government, among untold options.

Last fall, when Colorado and Washington voted to regulate marijuana like alcohol, few are likely to have connected a vote for legal cannabis with a vote in the direction of legal everything. Nadelmann himself sees the campaigns as parallel public education efforts. In the pot world, he’ll fight to spread legalization. He’ll work to refine current law, lowering the age of access to 18, and clearing a job path for veterans of the black market, including felons from the old days of the drug war.

The wider push for decriminalization remains a political and social nonstarter. But the Portugal model has been deemed a public health success story in that country, and Nadelmann is hard to doubt in this one. He looks like a surf board in profile with fading hair and a spring caterpillar of a mustache. But he’s a captivating stage performer, a sharp elbowed political operator, and a peerless egghead. With a resume that includes three Harvard degrees (B.A., J.D., Ph.D.), a consulting jag at the State Department and seven years as a professor of politics and public affairs Princeton, he’s also impossible to tar as a mere activist. 

But make no mistake: this fight is personal for Nadelmann.

His father escaped the Nazis and his grandfather did not, and what he sees as the persecution of responsible drug users pricks his Jewish consciousness. He recognizes a similar “demonization of a minority,” he says, the same “great fear” of being forced to live like the rest of society or face destruction. 

Growing up he wanted to be a policeman on horseback, an artist and then a professor, which he became and might have stayed if not for President Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs — when Congress considered sending users to a remote prison in Alaska and the drug czar argued that “marijuana leads to homosexuality, the breakdown of the immune system, and therefore to AIDS.”

'The problem here is prohibition' 

One day in June 1987, Nadelmann found himself on a drug policy panel at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., sitting with the head of enforcement at the FBI and some other Reagan hands, and he flipped.

“Look, let’s face it,” he remembers saying. “The problem here is prohibition. You’re essentially no different from the Prohibition agents of the 1920s.”

Most of Nadelmann’s debate points are standard issue: Prohibition is bad, and drugs are here to stay, so let’s focus on harm reduction. But he plants his flag in the highest possible ground, consistently making grander, more fantastic connections. He ties decriminalization to “freedom of consciousness,” and then to same-sex marriage and abortion rights, and ultimately to the rights of the First Amendment. 

“If you look at the fears about broader legalization,” he says, “the fears are almost identical to the fears that were expressed by authority figures and others if you were allowed freedom of speech two hundred years ago.”  Other times he compares drug hysteria to the fears of letting women vote, or abolishing slavery. For Nadelmann, the right to take drugs isn’t a fringe issue for the party set but the issue beneath all others — and now, more and more, the issue is connecting with a big tent of reformers. 

Many of them seemed to be in the audience of his Princeton talk, where a woman in pearls sat next to a man with a tie-dye beard. In the days that followed, Nadelmann traveled to Atlanta, where he strategized with former President Jimmy Carter, lectured at Emory’s School of Public Health, advised the governor’s office, addressed a theological school and pitched cable ideas to Sanjay Gupta at CNN. 

“We’re the people who love drugs, the people who hate drugs and the people who don’t give a damn about drugs,” Nadelmann likes to say of his movement. These days, however, he always comes back to his continuum of drug policies, directing people to the sliver between decriminalization and outright legalization. That’s Nadelmann’s sweet spot.

With every sale of cannabis in Colorado and Washington that sweet spot will grow, pushing America toward Portugal, if the new markets work, or dragging it back toward Singapore and Saudi Arabia, if the new markets fail.

“I’ll know I’ve succeeded,” says Nadelmann, the day the debate between decriminalization and legalization becomes the national debate, “and I’ll look forward to stepping back and watching all my allies take out their knives and fight with each other over the details.”