Ethan Nadelmann on Trump, Sessions, Obama and Why He Decided to Leave the DPA
Fourteen issues ago, in 2015, we published an interview with Drug Policy Alliance founder and Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann. At the time, legalization was on the ballot in Ohio. Nadelmann squirmed over sup-porting it (its critics said the measure would create a monopoly). The initiative failed. Now, following massive marijuana victories at the polls last November, he’s decided to leave the organization that, in large part, is responsible for pushing the legalization envelope. “You now have the first long interview I’ve given on my departure from DPA,” he told Freedom Leaf upon submitting answers to our questions.
Are Donald Trump as President and Jeff Sessions as Attorney General your worst nightmares?
Pretty close. Trump is the closest thing to a fascist—in the very real, traditional sense of the term—ever to win election to the White House. And there’s also lots of evidence that he’s not just an egomaniac, but something of a sociopath. Sessions is a drug-war dinosaur, a “reefer madness” ideologue and a bigot. As for Steve Bannon, he’s the nightmare driving the nightmare.
Did you see this Republican takeover of Washington and so many state houses coming?
I believed the polling experts. I knew the Republicans had a decent chance of keeping the Senate and doing well in the state elections. I refused to believe that Donald Trump could actually win—mostly because I assumed that most Americans would never pull the lever for a man of such terrible character.
Do you think Bernie Sanders could have defeated Trump?
There’s no way to know that. On the one hand, he would have appealed more to white working-class voters, especially those who voted for Obama in 2012 but went for Trump in 2016, and also younger voters. But we also don’t know how he would have fared in a general election with billions of dollars being spent to make him look bad, or how many Hillary Clinton voters would have refrained from giving him their vote.
How did Barack Obama handle the War on Drugs? Did he do enough, or could he have done more?
I was encouraged by his first year in office, when he more or less made good on his three campaign promises—to pull back on federal action against medical marijuana, to push for federal funding of needle-exchange programs and to reform the racist crack/cocaine federal mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. The rest of his first term and the beginning of his second, though, were big disappointments. But I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by his last three years in office. The qualified green light in the form of the Cole memorandum that he and Attorney General Eric Holder issued to Colorado and Washington in August 2013 was pivotal. His rhetoric on marijuana and legalization was mostly good, given how few governors and U.S. senators were willing to step out on the issue.
Obama and Holder pushed the right way on lots of other issues—sentencing reform, giving clemency, harm reduction, oversight of racist policing and much more—which was not easy, given the Republican control of Congress. His second drug czar, Michael Botticelli, was bad on marijuana but pretty good, relative to all his predecessors, on other aspects of drug policy. Their opposition to reforming federal civil asset-forfeiture laws was really disappointing, especially since Republicans like Senator Charles Grassley, the Judiciary Committee chair, were keen to do it. So all in all, I’d give Obama a B that first year, a C/C- the next four years, and a B+/A- the last three years, factoring in a curve for the political realities.
Why did you decide to step down as Executive Director of the DPA after 23 years?
It basically came down to a combination of personal, organizational and political factors. Planning DPA’s 17th annual budget, 34th board meeting and 9th biennial conference—these things get easier as one gains experience, but the routine of it all was getting to me. Plus, I was turning 60 on March 13, and itching to take on some new challenges while I still feel young and hopefully have some good decades ahead. And, I guess, one other thing: I don’t know anyone who thought it was time for me to step aside. I wanted to be the first to think of that.
Organizationally, it’s obviously going to mean a big change for DPA, but the finances are solid and the staff and board amazing, with many of my colleagues having been at DPA for more than a decade. Our board chair since the beginning, Ira Glasser, is overseeing the transition.
What was the most significant political accomplishment during your tenure?
I think I’ll be most remembered for my role in legalizing marijuana, from the first successful medical-marijuana initiative, California’s Prop 215 in 1996, to the biggest of the recent legalization victories, last year’s Prop 64 in California. I take great pride in having played a key role in marijuana legalization going from 25% support in polls in the mid-’80s to almost 60% today, and from zero states legal to 29 legal for medical and eight for all adult use. But what’s given me the greatest satisfaction is the role I’ve played in building the drug-policy-reform movement, both in my country and abroad. There’s something about weaving together people who come from across the political spectrum, across the drug-use spectrum and across the drug-law spectrum, that’s been particularly challenging and rewarding.
What was your most significant political defeat?
Proposition 5 in California in 2008. There was almost nothing in there about marijuana, but it would have been, if it had passed, by far the biggest sentencing reform ever in America—quickly cutting California’s prison population by tens of thousands of drug and other nonviolent offenders, shifting $1 billion per year from incarceration to public health and treatment and saving taxpayers billions of dollars in just a few years. We started off with incredibly high levels of public support. I raised about $7.5 million from an eclectic group of wealthy individuals. But, in the end, the California prison guards union was able to mobilize the entire political establishment and, ultimately, a majority of voters against it. That was an incredibly hard defeat.
You made great strides to diversify DPA over the last few years. How is diversity in the cannabis industry going?
Too slowly. Hopefully, California’s Prop 64, which incorporates an array of social-justice provisions, like allowing people with prior felony drug convictions to apply for [marijuana-business] licenses, will provide a new model for improving diversity.
Who are some of the politicians you’ve worked with that supported drug-policy reforms?
Kurt Schmoke, the mayor of Baltimore from 1987 to 1999, was my partner in arms for the first decade. He’s really one of my heroes for stepping out as boldly as he did, and sticking with it in the face of tremendous criticism. And Gary Johnson. We met shortly after he spoke out in favor of legalization in late 1999 as governor of New Mexico, and quickly became friends and allies. Gary’s commitment was fantastic.
Three politicians in California stand out: former state legislators John Vasconcellos—who later joined DPA’s board— and Mark Leno, and Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco who proved to be such a remarkable ally last year, as lieutenant governor, with Prop 64. In New York, we’ve worked with some great state legislators, Jeff Aubry and Dick Gottfried, and also David Soares, the district attorney of Albany County.
In Congress, Reps. Barney Frank, Earl Blumenauer, Jared Polis and Dana Rohrabacher stand out on marijuana policy. There are lots of others, including John Conyers, Barbara Lee, Steve Cohen and Hakeem Jeffries. I really like Senator Cory Booker’s commitment to our agenda. I’ve known him since before he first ran and lost for Newark mayor, back in 2002. And I hope Congressman Beto O’Rourke, whom I first met when he was a city councilman in El Paso, Texas, will run and beat Senator Ted Cruz next year. It’s a long shot, but Beto’s the first person to ever write a book about why marijuana needs to be legalized and then get elected to Congress. I wouldn’t count him out.
Who were and currently are some of the worst politicians and/or political appointees on drug-policy reform?
That’s a long list. Put William Bennett, the first drug czar following the creation of the Office of National Drug Control Policy back in 1989, at the top. He proved incredibly skillful at playing on Middle America’s fears about drugs and race to advance a highly reactionary and punitive political agenda. Jeff Sessions is another one. I hope we’ve advanced to the point where the harm he can do is limited by how much he’s out of step with public opinion, even among Republicans, but we’ll see. The guy who has to be at the top of the list today is Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, who’s been responsible for thousands of extra-judicial assassinations of drug users in recent months. One prays for the day he’ll be prosecuted before a war-crimes tribunal.
Do you think Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice will try to shut down adult-use cannabis in the eight states where it’s legal?
I don’t think we’ll see a full frontal assault by the Justice Department under Sessions, but it’s not going to be easy sailing. They’re going to appoint a whole slew of new U.S. attorneys and encourage them to mess with the industry. I’m assuming that Sessions is going to direct the Justice Department’s Criminal Division to look for ways to create problems. They’ll probably make use of civil asset-forfeiture laws to hurt people without actually putting them behind bars. And they may get creative with litigation strategies, to make it difficult for state governments to regulate the industry effectively. A lot depends on how much chaos Sessions wants to create.
Based on White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s recent statements, will medical marijuana remain status quo?
Those comments, together with Trump’s during the campaign, were mildly re-assuring, but Republicans in Congress better make doubly sure they re-approve the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment that prohibits the Justice Department from going after medical marijuana in the states that have legalized it. Keep in mind that Sessions has yet to offer the sort of explicit reassurance regarding medical marijuana that Spicer did.
How is marijuana legalization in the laboratories of democracy— Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska— doing?
It seems pretty good to me. The sky has not fallen. There’s been no big jump in adolescent marijuana use. Tax revenue is exceeding expectations. Most folks in the new industry are acting responsibly. Some people are switching from more dangerous drugs like booze and opioids to cannabis. And I like how governors like Colorado’s John Hickenlooper, who opposed the initiative in 2012 and has never been all that favorable to it, are now saying lots of nice things about their successful legalization laws.
The marijuana law-reform movement is now about 50 years old. What’s needed to end cannabis prohibition?
We have to keep moving the ball down the field; avoid missteps and overconfidence; neutralize the greedy and nutty players who could derail our progress; and do a lot more work in the states where tremendous numbers of people, disproportionately black and brown, are still getting arrested and even jailed. Congress may act to ease the federal prohibition and maybe even repeal it, but it’s going to take a lot more time for the federal government to actually amend the international drug-control treaties.
What’s next for you?
I have no specific plans. I’m just going to take it easy for a while. I’d like to finally write the book about drugs that I’ve been wanting to write for a very long time. I plan to stay involved in drug-policy reform, but also will have the freedom to engage other issues. That was something I had to limit while leading DPA. I’m hoping to be more involved in drug-policy reform globally than I had time to be while heading DPA, which focuses primarily on the U.S. I enjoy public speaking and hope to do more of that too. I’ve recently gotten excited about doing my own podcast— that seems like fun. Lots of folks in the legal marijuana industry are asking if I want to consult or help in other ways. We’ll see. But, truth be told, I don’t really know —and I’m very much looking forward to the uncertainty and adventure ahead.
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