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Ethan Nadelmann: The Real Drug Czar

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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.

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