Ethan Nadelmann’s Fight Against The War On Drugs: New administration, New Challenges

Anyone who has heard Ethan Nadelmann speak will remember how passionate he is about the topic of drug reform. His speech at the 2015 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Arlington, Virginia literally quieted the audience of 2,000 as he recounted some of the terrible drug enforcement policies in the U.S. and other parts of the world, some that still maintain a death penalty for simple possession.

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a drug reform advocacy organization that also played a significant role in creating the initiative that resulted in the legalization of cannabis in Washington, D.C.

Nadelmann, now 60 years old and looking for more challenges, recently announced that he is stepping down from the DPA in late April. “I feel that I have accomplished a lot over my years in a lot of ballot initiatives going back to 1996,” he said. “What I feel that I am really trying to do now is ensure that the DPA continues to flourish and grow and be effective under the new leadership. But at the same time, I am looking forward to new adventures, and remain in marijuana reform and other drug reform issues,” he said. “It’s an unusual time for me, but one that feels quite right.”

The DPA aims to end the war on drugs. But legalization of marijuana has become more challenging as the new administration continues to send mixed signals about what they will—or will not—do on a federal level for legalization. 

“What I think they will do is pull out the Cole memo from 2013 and start interpreting that more strictly,” Nadelmann said. “They are going to target asset forfeiture actions or do prosecutions of key players in the industry, and look for ways to generally make life difficult for the future of marijuana legalization.”

“Effective advocacy typically involves [a] combination of sophisticated grass roots and grass tops advocacy in support of a strategic agenda…”

He thinks that it’s time for the serious players in the industry to become more sophisticated in their advocacy at the federal level, and more effectively align with advocacy organizations like the DPA. 

Some of the more aggressive advocacy organizations, such as the DCMJ in D.C., believe that there is a more direct route to legalization law-making and regulation: through acts of civil disobedience. They believe that the DPA and similar advocate organizations move too slowly, and are missing opportunities to push the legalization agenda. 

“It’s not an either-or thing,” Nadelmann said. “Effective advocacy typically involves [a] combination of sophisticated grass roots and grass tops advocacy in support of a strategic agenda. I think that street theater [civil disobedience] can play a valuable role in advancing that agenda, but can also set it backwards sometimes.”

In an op-ed column published by the New York Times in late February, Nadelmann wrote that the new administration has “cast a chill” over the legal and regulated marijuana industry by “challenging the ability of state authorities to regulate the industry.” 

But a recently formed Congressional Cannabis Caucus, created by two Democrat and two Republican congressmen, gives momentum to legislation efforts by creating an opportunity to embark on more effective bi-partisan action. 

“Renewing the Earl Blumenauer amendment (to deschedule marijuana and regulate it like alcohol), and then reintroducing the McClintock Polis amendment (to prevent the Department of Justice from interfering in state marijuana laws) and getting that passed by Congress has to be a significant part of the legalization work done in 2017,” Nadelmann said.