Ethan Nadelmann: The Real Drug Czar

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

ethan nadelmann drug czar
Thomas Prior
Nadelmann near his home on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
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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."

Almost overnight, Nadelmann broke out as one of the drug war's top critics. At the tail end of the Reagan years, his were hardly mainstream views. One New York Times story about his ideas was headlined THE UNSPEAKABLE IS DEBATED: SHOULD DRUGS BE LEGALIZED? His provocations soon caught the attention of George Soros. The Hungarian-born hedge-fund titan had helped fund democracy movements in Eastern Europe, and he was now eager to press a reform agenda in his adopted home country, beginning with the War on Drugs. With Soros' backing, Nadelmann in 1994 left Princeton to found the Lindesmith Center, named after Alfred Lindesmith, a scholar who spent decades challenging the criminalization of drugs. Nadelmann began probing for the soft underbelly of drug prohibition, trying to see where he could have the most effect: "We started polling and found a couple of issues where the public said the drug war's gone too far." Number one? The criminalization of medical marijuana. Nadelmann had the issue. California would provide the test case.

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Led by a gay ex-hippie and AIDS hospice pioneer named Dennis Peron, activists in San Francisco had drafted an expansive medical-marijuana initiative in 1995 that sought to make the drug available to patients with ailments as minor as a migraine. But Peron's stoner ambition far outpaced his fundraising or his political chops, so he called on Nadelmann for help qualifying Prop 215 for the ballot.

Nadelmann pitched Soros for funding, telling him, "There's a shot to break things open here." In his first direct foray into American politics, Soros stepped up, as did fellow billionaires in Nadelmann's Rolodex: Peter Lewis, the head of Progressive Insurance, and John Sperling, the founder of the University of Phoenix, both of whom had used marijuana medicinally.

The California initiative, Nadelmann believed, "could change the public face of the marijuana consumer" from the stereotype of a "17-year-old high school dropout with dreadlocks" to a middle-aged cancer patient braving chemo. Trouble was, the activists Nadelmann was working with played right into those stereotypes. While Nadelmann tried to frame medical marijuana as a matter of common sense and compassion, Peron would loudly insist that all marijuana use was medicinal.

Nadelmann quickly realized he had to rescue Prop 215 from the activists themselves. "We professionalized it," Nadelmann recalls. He tapped a top California political consultant, Bill Zimmerman, to take over signature-gathering and the media campaign. Nadelmann's task – then as now – was to keep a lid on the culture clash between the anti-authoritarian activists and the command-and-control political professionals. "We played good cop/bad cop," Zimmerman remembers. "I would lay down the law, and Ethan came in to repair relations." Voters approved Prop 215 by a resounding 56-to-44 percent. Determined to snowball the success of California, Nadelmann went back to the billionaires, challenging them to fund a nationwide rollout of medical pot. In just 24 hours, he raised $8.1 million for ballot propositions that would soon bring medical marijuana to Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado and Maine. Initially, Nadelmann rebuffed any suggestion that medical pot was a stalking horse for full legalization. But as the movement picked up momentum, he spoke more openly about his long game. "Will it help lead toward marijuana legalization?" Nadelmann asked in a New York Times interview in 2000. "I hope so."

Nadelmann spun off from Soros' empire in 2000, standing up in his own organization, the Drug Policy Alliance – which he has since built into a $10 million enterprise, with 60 employees, offices in five states and an international reach. Although he's passionate about pot reform, Nadelmann has always couched it within his broader agenda. Nadelmann has positioned DPA as the nexus where drug reformers of all stripes can plug in and begin to identify themselves as allies in a common fight.

Following the dark days of the Bush administration, a new opportunity to push the envelope on pot emerged, again, in California in 2009. A different generation of activists had taken hold: They weren't hippies, they were hard-nosed entrepreneurs like Richard Lee, a Texas-born, wheelchair-bound activist who ran a taxpaying dispensary in Oakland and had launched the nation's first marijuana trade school, Oaksterdam University.

Lee staked more than $1 million to qualify a ballot measure to legalize, tax and regulate the adult use of marijuana. He was adamant about pushing the measure in 2010, even though the demographics of a presidential-year election would be more favorable. "The medical thing was so nonmedical," Lee says, "that it seemed like we needed to be honest – and move forward with complete legalization."

Lee's long-shot initiative cut against Nadelmann's strategy of baby steps and no regrets. "We had operated on a model that you didn't want to do an initiative unless you had at least 55 percent in favor," he says. "You do a ballot initiative because the public's already on your side." But when he saw Lee was undeterrable, Nadelmann scrapped the playbook. Soon he began to see the legalization push as a chance to "transform the national discussion."

As a principal fundraiser, Nadelmann cajoled Soros into a big step forward, persuading him to back full marijuana legalization for the first time and to kick in $1 million to the campaign. Prop 19 didn't win, but it so spooked state lawmakers that they pre-emptively decriminalized marijuana; California now treats pot possession as a minor infraction, like a parking ticket.

Advancing into Colorado and Washington in 2012, Nadelmann realized that DPA could be most effective pushing from behind. "We're here to play a leadership role, and that means not always putting yourself out front," he says. "You can conquer the world," he jokes, "if you let others take the credit for it."

Those who've collaborated for years with Nadelmann see the legalization victories as the culmination of nearly two decades of meticulous strategy. Neill Franklin is a former narcotics officer who runs Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "Without Ethan," he says, "we wouldn't be talking about implementing marijuana legalization in Washington state and Colorado."

The morning after his U.C. Irvine lecture, Nadelmann hustles me into a meeting of the Democracy Alliance, a confab for wealthy progressive donors, at a tony oceanfront resort in Laguna Beach, where a pair of carbon-fiber McLaren roadsters and a fire-red Ferarri are parked out front.

There's nothing slick about Nadelmann. Instead of resort linens or the sharply ironed business-casual attire of the millionaires milling about, he looks like he's out to grab a bagel on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where he lives, wearing a generic orange polo shirt and holey dad jeans.

Nadelmann answers questions about his own drug use with nonchalance. Cocaine? "I tried it any number of times, but it always seemed to me like drinking too much coffee and having post-nasal drip." Pot? "I've been an occasional marijuana consumer since I was 18," he says, but despite leading a movement of activists who could hook him up with the finest strains of Purple Kush, he insists he's no connoisseur. "I know remarkably little," he says sheepishly. "I finally got it straight between indica and sativa."

He is more avid about psychedelics. Nadelmann likens his use of mushrooms to fasting on Yom Kippur: "Once a year, it's a good thing." And he's taken two "vision quests" under the influence of ayahuasca, a cousin of peyote, regarded as "the queen" of hallucinogens. "Psychedelics are wasted on the young," he says.

Despite the movement's recent successes, the end of pot prohibition, Nadelmann says, "is going to be complicated, tough, and we've got to be disciplined." He points out that voters are receptive to new approaches: "People want the tax revenue, and they want the cops to focus on real crime. Those are the two winning ­arguments." But he also knows that changing public opinion isn't ­nearly enough. Medical marijuana enjoys 85 percent support nationwide, yet it has zero champions in the Senate.

As the Obama administration continues to weigh its response in Washington and Colorado, Nadelmann is plotting the next moves. DPA is drafting an initiative in Oregon that could appear before voters as soon as next year, and Nadelmann believes California will test the legalization waters again in 2016. "The only way forward," he says, "is to go state by state until Congress and the White House cry uncle."Nadelmann has cultivated diverse ­allies in Washington – including both former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and ­Republican coalition leader Grover Norquist – while mentoring ambitious politicians in the states. "He provides people in elected office some backbone, and God knows we need it," says Gavin Newsom, California's lieutenant governor, who has stepped out boldly on marijuana legalization in recent weeks. "I'm included in that. It shouldn't have taken me this long."

Nadelmann is concerned that America not simply replace the hazards of the black market with the excesses of a free market. In a candid moment, he ­confesses, "I'm concerned now, because I see at my meetings, more and more of them are coming from the marijuana industry," he says. "Some care about the broader principles. Some are just in it for the money."

Talking about the business side of pot, Nadelmann can sound like he's never left the ivory tower. His work is enabling the legal expansion of a multibillion-dollar American industry. But for Nadelmann, that's almost entirely beside the point. He worries that the common interests of state regulators and pot profiteers could conspire to create Big Marijuana – a concentrated industry with just a few large-scale growers that are easier for state authorities to monitor and regulate. That would be a bad outcome for his agenda, he believes; mass marketing and public health don't mix. Ironically, Nadelmann says, the Obama administration's evident determination to crack down on industrial-scale marijuana could be a saving grace. "Give me my choice – I want the microbrewery or vineyard model," he says. "I'm not fighting for the Marlboro-ization of marijuana."

This story is from the June 20th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1185: June 20, 2013
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