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Ethan Nadelmann: The Real Drug Czar

The most influential man in the battle for legalization is a wonky intellectual in dad jeans

Nadelmann near his home on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Thomas Prior
June 6, 2013 8:00 AM ET

The driving force for the legalization of marijuana in America – a frenetic, whip-smart son of a rabbi who can barely tell indica from sativa – has just entered enemy territory. Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, is here in California's crucible of conservatism, Orange County, to talk about the failure of the War on Drugs and why the government should leave pot smokers alone. As a grizzled ex-DEA agent glares at him from the audience of a lecture hall on the campus of U.C. Irvine, it's clear that this crowd has not gathered to celebrate cannabis culture. And that's just the way Nadelmann likes it.

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For more than two decades, Nadelmann has built a broad-based movement for reform on the strength of a strategic insight that's both simple and profound: The fight against repressive drug laws isn't about championing the rights of drug users – even of a substance as popular as marijuana. It's about fighting against federal overreach and the needless human toll of drug prohibition. Before Nadelmann joined the cause some 20 years ago, marijuana legalization was an orphan crusade of hippies handing out leaflets at Dead shows and outlaw growers with bumper stickers demanding U.S. OUT OF HUMBOLDT COUNTY! Today, thanks in large part to Nadelmann's efforts, pot is fully legal in two states and available medically in 16 others. "He is the single most influential policy entrepreneur on any domestic issue," says John DiIulio, a longtime drug warrior and tough-on-crime academic who has recently come around to Nadelmann's side on marijuana policy. "He wore me down," DiIulio says. "What can I say?"

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Lanky and jug-eared, with a thin red mustache that's trending white, the 56-year-old Nadelmann speaks without notes, in a delivery that's two parts James Carville, one part Woody Allen. Though he carries himself with the fearlessness of a man who has staked out the right side of history, he is hardly ready to take a victory lap. "Do not assume this is in the bag," he warns. "Marijuana is not gonna legalize itself."

Growing up in a strict, Sabbath-observant home in Yonkers, Nadelmann was versed in movement­building long before he ever touched a joint. He admired his father's ability to unite a diverse congregation that included both fellow rabbis and members with barely a high school education. "He had a real talent," Nadelmann says, "to engage the most intellectually sophisticated, without talking over the heads of people who were the least sophisticated."

Nadelmann's sheltered youth took an expansive turn at 18, when he shipped off to McGill University in Montreal, where he began smoking hash and bending his mind on the libertarianism of John Stuart Mill. Brainy and ambitious, Nadelmann soon transferred to Harvard for a marathon stretch in academia that would see him rack up a J.D. and a Ph.D. in political science, as well as a master's in international relations that he picked up on the side at the London School of Economics.

Nadelmann recalls the late 1970s of his collegiate youth as America's marijuana spring. In the Carter years, ending the federal war on pot seemed like little more than a waiting game: 53 percent of college freshmen supported legalizing weed in 1978. And Carter himself was in favor of decriminalizing the drug. But that brief moment of reefer sanity would soon be crushed with the rise of Ronald Reagan and what Nadelmann remembers as "a period of national hysteria" around drugs.

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To Nadelmann, any rational examination of the evidence supported treating drug abuse as a public-health crisis. But the political response was driven entirely by law enforcement and incarceration. "Something was fundamentally wrong," he says. The moral disparagement of drug users alarmed him: "It was like McCarthyism through the drug war."

Abandoning his graduate-school focus on Middle East studies at Harvard, Nadelmann began to investigate increasing U.S. efforts to police narcotics trafficking on a global scale. The subject struck Nadelmann as the obvious intersection of international relations and criminal justice, but, academically, it was uncharted territory. "There was nobody there!" he says.

Keeping his personal rage against "the absurdity of the drug war" to himself, Nadelmann quickly established himself as a top young expert in the field, lining up a professorship at Princeton, just as the drug war was reaching a fever pitch. In 1987, he received an invitation to speak at a conference on interdiction at the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he would share the dais with top brass from the DEA, the FBI and the State Department. And, in a defining act of chutzpah, he chose this moment to out his true beliefs.

Blood pounding in his temples, the 30-year-old Nadelmann stood before some of the nation's most powerful drug warriors to inform them that they were full of shit: "You guys are no different from the Prohibition agents in the 1920s," Nadelmann recalls saying. "Your policy isn't working any better, and it's probably doing more harm."

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