"Profoundly offensive, and an incredible waste": Why are we busting drug users?

Drug Policy Alliance founder and director Ethan Nadelmann tells Salon the real lessons of Trey Radel and Rob Ford

By Josh Eidelson

Published November 25, 2013 1:30PM (EST)

Henry "Trey" Radel, Rob Ford      (Reuters/Steve Nesius/Aaron Harris)
Henry "Trey" Radel, Rob Ford (Reuters/Steve Nesius/Aaron Harris)

Days after cocaine use by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and U.S. Rep. Trey Radel made national headlines, Attorney General Eric Holder told a gathering of security ministers in Colombia that America’s “widespread incarceration is both inadvisable and unsustainable” and “carries both human and moral costs that are too much to bear.” Salon spoke afterward with Drug Policy Alliance founder and director Ethan Nadelmann, a key player in a movement that’s just had its biggest year in decades. Nadelmann told Salon why the Radel case makes him ambivalent, said President Obama has both shown “profound hypocrisy” and overseen “historic” progress, and offered his take on kids smoking pot. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.

What's your reaction to [Holder’s comments]?

It’s a strange feeling -- at once wonderful and wary -- when the attorney general … basically says the same thing that I and other reformers have been saying for the last few decades. I mean, it’s stunning. It’s stunning. Now mind you, the rhetorical shift, and the willingness to do so not just at a civil rights meeting in the U.S., but at a meeting of security ministers in Medellin, is, I think, quite remarkable -- long overdue, but quite remarkable nonetheless.

So far how has the administration’s policy compared to its rhetoric on these issues?

It’s shifted. In the first 18 months of the Obama administration, it was pretty good. Obama made three campaign commitments when he was running for president: about rolling back mandatory minimums; giving the states room to move on medical marijuana; and funding needle exchange programs to reduce AIDS. And so, much to my surprise, he made good to some extent on all three of those in the first 18 months. Then the remainder of his term was a great disappointment. Basically there were virtually no new initiatives taken, the drug czar was mouthing the same old anti-marijuana rhetoric we heard before, there was almost no engagement on broader drug policy debate, and there were just a couple of smaller initiatives taken …

But I have to say, over the last four months I have been pleasantly surprised … Obama and Holder had always told people that criminal justice and drug policy, that if they were going to take it up, it would be a second-term issue, and the fact is that they appear to be serious about that. Holder’s speech a few months ago to the Bar Association criticizing mass incarceration, the explicit proposals he made to reform federal sentencing policy, and then the speech yesterday in Medellin, suggest a real commitment to moving in a new direction. And then what they did on the marijuana stuff, by [putting] out the Cole memorandum three months ago, giving Washington and Colorado a chance to move forward with implementing their [legalization] initiatives was also bolder than I expected.

So over the next year, what are the markers you’re going to be looking at from DOJ and the administration?

On the marijuana issue … will they operate in good faith in allowing Washington and Colorado to move forward with implementing their legal marijuana regulation, and will they do the same with respect to the states that have responsible approaches to regulating medical marijuana? … The second thing is … in terms of the ways that they’re changing federal sentencing policy administratively, will we see real change happen at that level?

Then, thirdly: Will they support federal legislation for sentencing reform and other drug policy reform? … Fourthly, I’ll be curious to see the next appointments …

Fifthly, will we see U.S. foreign policy shifting as well?

What kind of person should be the drug czar?

The first person who comes to my mind … I’d replace [former Seattle police chief and outgoing Office of National Drug Control Policy head Gil] Kerlikowske with the current police chief of Seattle, Jim Pugel.

So you’ve been at this for a while. How does the level of momentum on your side of this issue compare to what we’ve seen in the past? Is there some kind of turning point here?

It’s unprecedented with respect to marijuana. I would say that we’ve basically hit the turning point, and I’m very cautious in saying that, because I’m fully aware that you can only say that you’ve hit the tipping point so many times before you lose your credibility. It’s the first time I’ve said that about marijuana … for three reasons.

The first is the Washington and Colorado initiatives last year … The second reason that I say it is the Justice Department, the Cole memorandum a few months ago, in which the Justice Department gave these states much more of a green light to move forward than I expected. And the third reason I’d say is the public opinion polls …

I would say we’ve hit a tipping point, with the caveat that marijuana is not going to legalize itself. There is a great need for the drug policy and the marijuana reform movement to become ever more sophisticated and savvier, and to address the issues around implementation in a responsible way, and to raise the money that’s needed to help change these laws through the ballot initiative process and the legislative process. So there’s nothing inevitable -- this is not going to be a downhill slope toward marijuana legalization.

… When it comes to the issue of mass incarceration, what I would say is that we’re at a turning point. By which I mean that trying to turn around the system of incarceration in America is a bit like trying to turn around an ocean liner … I think we are beginning to see incarceration drop in the United States, but it’s going to take years. And it’s going to move slowly, in part because the prison industrial complex in the United States is so deeply entrenched, and so powerful, and has such pervasive interests that it’s going to want to protect.

I think that on basically the third issue we deal with, which is how you deal with drug use and addiction and people who use drugs both responsibly and irresponsibly, I think we still have a long way to go before we embrace a true public health harm-reduction model.

Do you think that organizations like yours are doing enough to address the racial aspect of the drug war and of mass incarceration?

Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that there is a high level of consciousness around the underlying racism of the war on drugs … [And] this drug-policy reform movement is becoming increasingly diverse … Our [international drug policy reform] conference in Denver last month, if you look there and you contrast who was at that conference with who was at the drug policy reform conferences of 20 years ago, it’s just remarkably different in complexion and perspective and such. Remarkably few African-Americans were speaking out for drug policy reform 20 years ago. Whereas now a growing percentage are basically identifying the war on drugs, in Michelle Alexander’s words, as “The New Jim Crow.” So in both those senses, I think levels of consciousness and levels of the broad diversity of the movement, there’s huge progress.

The major limitation really is the fact the drug policy reform movement, you know we’re growing in influences and resources and power, but we still don’t have the power of the NRA … We’ve clearly moved from the fringes of American politics increasingly into the mainstream, without abandoning or compromising any of our principles. But we don’t yet have the sort of influence that’s needed …

If you look at public opinion on support for marriage equality, and you look at the polling on support for legalizing marijuana over the last six or seven years, they track one another fairly closely …

[But] even though public support is just as high … we don’t have the White House, really -- although they’ve made some steps recently. We don’t have any senators. We don’t have any governors -- although the two governors, Hickenlooper and Inslee, in Washington and Colorado, are at least defending the new law … We have about 20 members of the House. So there’s a real gap there, between where the public is at and the willingness of elected officials to step out.

In the comparison you’re making to the equal marriage cause -- why don’t you have that level of support?

… I’m delighted that that [gay marriage] movement has moved forward the way it has and has gained legitimacy the way it has. For us involved in drug policy reform, and especially the marijuana legalization part of it, we see the gay rights movement as sort of our elder sibling, right? I mean we see ourselves sort of trailing behind them by a few years, not so much in terms of public opinion, but in terms of political influence and legitimacy.

But I think part of it is just the cost-benefit equation of elected officials … marijuana’s hit a tipping point with public opinion, but we haven’t hit the tipping point with elected officials in the way gay marriage has.

And how are you going to change that?

I think by continuing to do what we do and trying to step up our efforts.

People of influence, both in elected office and outside, other people of influence in society who are willing to talk with us, who are eager to talk with us, and who increasingly agree with us [are] increasing dramatically over just the last 18 months.

I really do think that, for example, what the Justice Department did both with respect to the marijuana issue in response to Colorado and Washington, and then in terms of the ways in which Attorney General Holder has been speaking out on the issue of mass incarceration in the past three months, I think both of those issues are of historic significance. And you know, I’m perfectly happy to criticize all of this for being too little and too late, but it’s still incredibly significant.

The news over the past week about Rep. Radel -- what’s the lesson there?

… On the one hand, when a guy like Radel gets caught, the guy -- he was in some respects a hypocrite. This is a guy -- I mean, he was among the Republicans who wanted to drug test anybody applying for food stamps, and here’s a guy who has a federal salary. And that kind of hypocrisy -- I think, in a way, he got his comeuppance … It’s overwhelmingly poor people of color who are getting arrested for drug possession, and you know, to see somebody like him, I think there’s an element of fairness in that.

But on the other hand, I basically feel that nobody should be getting arrested for simple drug possession. I have a hard time understanding why federal agents should be engaged in a [sell and] bust operation. I mean, [buy] and bust is offensive enough. But a [sell and] bust, where you actually arrest somebody whom you’re offering the drugs to, is profoundly offensive and an incredible waste of resources. And the other thing about Radel is that he was among the few Republicans who has been highly critical of the drug war … The fact of the matter is that the only way we end the drug war in America is through some bipartisan cooperation, and Radel was part of a new generation of, you know, sort of libertarian-minded Republicans who are actually willing to step out on this issue. So that’s why I have a fair level of ambivalence about the whole thing.

You mentioned hypocrisy. For the president of the United States to admit to drug use, not seek to be arrested for past drug use, and not come out against other people being arrested for drug use -- is that hypocrisy?

Of course it was a profound hypocrisy on the part of Barack Obama, right. It was one of the things that we nailed him for repeatedly. But I have to say, as I just did, that the actions of the Justice Department over the past six months … they don’t make up for that hypocrisy but … there really is something different in the air on federal drug policy …

I was in Jamaica a few months ago. And they’re talking about reforming their marijuana laws, and I’m encouraging them to move forward with that. And I’m meeting with very senior people in their government and the opposition party, and they’re saying to me, “You know, Ethan, you don’t understand, the U.S. embassy here is incredibly powerful, and let me tell you, the last [time] we proposed decriminalization -- the phone calls we got and the intimidation you get.” And then the very next day that Cole memo comes out of Washington. The thing I’m saying to the Jamaicans and the others is keep your eye on changes in American politics … foreign governments can point to that same memo.

… For the attorney general … outside of the United States, [to] criticize his own country’s policy of mass incarceration, call it fiscally and morally unsustainable … In both the marijuana area and the mass incarceration, what you have in the last few months by the Obama administration is of historic significance.

In terms of policy: Where should the line be in terms of what substances, if any, are illegal for people to possess?

Drug policy reform, our objective in one sentence is to reduce the role of criminalization and the criminal justice system in drug control to the maximum extent consistent with protecting public safety and health … Because drug policy reform is inevitably going to happen in [an] incremental way, it’s hard to know explicitly how far one should go with, you know, cocaine, or methamphetamine. But the bottom line, what I would say is three things. The first one is: take marijuana out of the criminal justice system and regulate and tax it in a responsible way. Secondly, stop criminalizing people for possession of small amounts of any drug so long as they’re not hurting anybody else or getting behind the wheel of a car – essentially the Portugal model, which has proven highly effective. And the third thing is -- which we haven’t started talking about in the U.S. -- is basically to allow the addicts and heavy users of other illegal drugs, who are unable or unwilling to stop, to obtain the drugs they want from a legal regulated source. So that’s not really legalization, if legalization means like we do with alcohol and tobacco. But it means looking at what the Europeans … are trying to do with their heroin maintenance programs, and it means developing those sorts of programs here and then figuring out responsible ways to scale them up.

Is it inherently bad for teenagers to smoke pot?

It’s a lot like asking the question, “Is it inherently bad for teenagers to drink alcohol?” … Is it good for somebody to be drinking booze before they go to school every morning? No …

Is it good for a teenager to be “waking and baking” before they go to school? No … And obviously it depends on the age. There’s a big difference between a 13-year-old and an 18- or 19-year-old.

But is it a bad thing for somebody to drink alcohol, maybe get a little inebriated on the weekend in the way that, you know, responsible adults – I mean, not posing a risk to themselves or others? I mean, no I’m not going to go recommend they do it, but I don’t see it as a terrible thing. And similarly, if you have people who are in the later teens smoke the occasional joint – or now, increasingly, vaporize – with friends, and do so in a way that’s not presenting any risk to themselves or others, I don’t think it’s a terrible thing.

Josh Eidelson

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Barack Obama Cocaine Colombia Drug War Drugs Eric Holder Ethan Nadelmann Foreign Policy Marijuana Pot