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Freedom Leaf Interview: Ethan Nadelmann Talks Marijuana

Interview by Steve Bloom

Photos by G. Moses

The son of a rabbi, Ethan Nadelmann grew up with what he calls “a strong sense of social justice” that ultimately inspired him to make a career out of drug policy reform. Nadelmann founded the Lindesmith Center in 1994, which merged with the Drug Policy Foundation in 2000 to create the Drug Policy Alliance; he’s been Executive Director ever since. Called “the real Drug Czar” by Rolling Stone, Nadelmann is the marijuana legalization movement’s strongest voice for change. His rapid-paced speeches at industry events are the stuff of legend. Brimming with progressive ideas and revelatory anecdotes, Nadelmann can barely keep up with himself. With so much in the news regarding legalization efforts, especially in Ohio, we thought he’d be the perfect interviewee for our first anniversary issue. We sat down with Nadelmann for a lengthy chat in the DPA’s offices in Midtown Manhattan.

Do you see a tie-in between cannabis and Judaism?

The fundamental idea of a deviant minority being persecuted and needing to be converted to the majoritarian way for their own well-being, as well as for everybody else’s—that was sort of steeped in me. When you look at what was the most vicious, irrational persecution of citizens going on in America in the 1980s, it was the drug war.

What was it like growing up in a strict Jewish home?

My dad was born in Berlin in 1928. After the war he came to the U.S. in 1946. I had this very, very strong sense of the Holocaust and the persecution of the Jews. It’s just so much a part of my consciousness. In the ’80s, I was wondering what I was going to do with my life. What was clicking with me—not just consciously, but subconsciously—was the desire to connect my intellectual interests with something that I actually felt passionate about personally and politically. This just kind of came together.

How did marijuana fit into the equation?

The war on marijuana is very personal to me, in part because I’ve been an occasional marijuana consumer since I was 18. It’s played a positive role in my life.

Where do you stand on Issue 3, the marijuana legalization initiative in Ohio?

My sense is that the Ohio effort is overall a very good thing, except for one very bad thing, which is the oligopoly provision to the state constitution [10 investor groups alone stand to benefit if Issue 3 passes]. It just seems a bit over the top, a little too greedy and un-American in some respects. But look at New Jersey and New York, which have only five licensees [each] right now. However, those are not in the state constitution. There are a number of states where the number of licensees has been limited through legislative effort, executive authority or whatever. So in that sense, Ohio doesn’t look bad.

Ethan Nadelmann, DPA NYC 9/21/15Has DPA had any involvement with ResponsibleOhio, the group behind Issue 3?

They reached out to us at the end of 2014, asking for assistance on the drafting. We were already aware of the oligopoly provision. I said, “We’ll help you with the drafting in order to make it a stronger initiative, but I want you to know that we’re opposed to the oligopoly provision, and you cannot use the fact that we’re helping on the drafting of other provisions to say DPA endorses this initiative.”

There’s also Issue 2 on the Ohio ballot, which opposes the oligopoly. What happens if both win?

There’s a presumption that it will end up being litigated in the Ohio Supreme Court. The ideal outcome for me would be if both Issue 2 and Issue 3 win, and then the Ohio Supreme Court mandates that the legislature come up with a wholesale sale model that’s different than in Issue 3. However, if Issue 3 wins, come 2016, with the candidates going to Ohio—one of the three most important swing states in American presidential politics—it would have enormous benefit for the broader national movement to end marijuana prohibition. The simple fact of waking up the day after Election Day this November to find that Ohio legalized marijuana will catapult the marijuana legalization effort forward.

Even with that said, you still couldn’t, in good conscience, support it as an organization?

(Long pause) The fact that we have not formally endorsed it speaks to our reservations about the model that they’re using. On the other hand, I think a win in Ohio, regardless of what happens on the legislative initiative, would be a very good thing for the national movement to end marijuana prohibition.

What if it loses?

When I first began working on initiatives almost 20 years ago, I used to worry about losses a lot more. Oregon lost in 2012 and won in 2014. If marijuana legalization is defeated in Ohio, it’s not going to be a surprise to a lot of people. Ohio is seen as a conservative state. So losing there would be no surprise nationally. The fact that it’s a 2015 low-turnout election means it can be explained in all sorts of ways. I don’t think a defeat in Ohio is significant. The upside of a win is much greater than the downside of a loss.

Moving ahead to 2016, where is DPA positioning itself in various states as far as ballot initiatives and legislation?

In Maine, you have two different groups vying to make the ballot. If they can come up with a unity campaign, it should have a very good shot. Massachusetts should have a decent shot—I don’t know if the second effort there is going to have a serious opportunity. In Nevada, the question is, will there be the resources? In Arizona, you have the people in the marijuana industry stepping up to help pay for it. That’s just on the ballot initiative front.

What about California?

That’s the most complicated of them all. I announced last year that we were going to take the lead on this initiative. But it’s become a much more complicated universe right now. In California, there’s some risk of having more than one legalization initiative on the ballot. I very much hope that doesn’t happen. So we’re deeply involved in helping draft the initiative that we think will be the best-funded initiative on the ballot. But I cannot say that we’re in the driver’s seat. We’re one among a number of key players trying to move this thing forward.

It’s the biggest state, the longest history, so many players…

You have incredibly diverse interests around the state. In Humboldt and Mendocino, and other areas, you have long-established growing communities. You have dispensaries with varying degrees of regulation depending on where they are in the state. You have various political interests. This is the first state where a major player—Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom—has come out strongly in favor of legalizing marijuana. He’s got his blue-ribbon commission with all sorts of recommendations. The unions have been more present. Environmental organizations have a say. I’ve been involved in dozens of ballot initiatives since 1996—not just marijuana reform, but sentencing reform, asset forfeiture reform, and so on. This is far and away the most complicated one ever, in terms of the substance of the initiative and the politics.

Ethan Nadelmann, DPA NYC 9/21/15What about legalization legislation in state houses?

I think you’re going to see New England move the fastest. Vermont, maybe Rhode Island, maybe New Hampshire are the ones that are most likely to move forward on that front.

You spend a lot of time in Europe. What are the recent developments there in drug reform?

Europe has always been at the forefront of global drug policy reform. All of a sudden, along come Colorado and Washington, and then Uruguay, then Oregon, Alaska and D.C. The Dutch and the Europeans are feeling like they’ve lost their leadership role. If big, bad America can find a way to legalize marijuana, why can’t the Europeans figure that out? In the Netherlands, things are a bit bogged down. But because the big-city mayors revolted against the previous national government’s effort to ban tourists from the market, things are in play there.

What about Canada?

When people ask me what will be the second country in the world to legalize marijuana, after Uruguay, I typically say Canada—if [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper can be defeated. Under Harper, the national picture has been a disaster. If somehow Justin Trudeau and the Liberals win an outright majority, I think you’ll see a 180 on marijuana, and drug policy more generally, in Canada. I hope that something big can happen. [For more on the Canadian election, turn to page 8.]

Back in the U.S., what did you think of the Republican debate in September, and all the comments about marijuana?

Rand Paul was very good. Christie was atrocious. Jeb Bush I’ve pretty much always seen in the drug-war camp, but at least he’s being nuanced in a way that I think is helpful. Carly Fiorina saying beer is safer than marijuana is obviously not true for many, many people. Christie’s trying to identify himself as the anti-marijuana fanatic. It’s funny because he was one of the first Republican governors to be semi-supportive of medical marijuana in his own state. I don’t know why he’s doing it.

Where do you see things heading for the 2016 presidential election? Who do you think is going to get there, and how do you think it’s going to play out for marijuana?

The Democratic side is so hard to say. There are all sorts of reasons why we still can assume that Hillary [Clinton] is going to be the candidate. But there’s a momentum against her right now. I keep assuming [Joe] Biden is simply positioning himself in case she drops out for one reason or another. It’s hard to see Bernie Sanders actually getting the nomination, but he’s giving her a nice run for the money.

Are you “Feelin’ the Bern”?

Bernie’s never been really that marijuana-friendly. He’s the classic old-line socialist who’s culturally conservative. But I think key advisors around him are all saying, “Come on, Bernie, do it.” There’s a decent chance that he comes out for legalization sometime in the coming months. We prepared a memo for presidential candidates that we gave to Hillary and Rand Paul, so we sent it to Bernie, as well. But then he wanted to have a longer talk about it. It was actually Ben Cohen [from Ben & Jerry’s] who connected us. Bernie and I spent a chunk of time talking about it. We’ll see what happens. Like with Hillary, he’s tiptoeing more in our direction.

What would Hillary’s election mean for marijuana policy?

The marijuana issue is not in her blood the way it was with Barack Obama, who’s very marijuana-friendly. Hillary doesn’t have that connection to marijuana per se, and she’s never been bold at all on this issue, but I think she’s paying attention to politics. She’s hearing about it more and being forced to think about it a bit more. She’s said to at least a few people at fundraisers that she’ll be even better than Obama has been on the issue, which is promising, because I actually think Obama has been pretty decent on it over the last 18 months.

When will marijuana be legalized federally?

Bill Piper, who’s been heading our Congressional Affairs office for almost 15 years, says 2020. I think 2020 may be a bit optimistic for ending federal marijuana prohibition. We’ll see what happens in Ohio this year. We’ll see what happens in 2016—whether there will be between four and six legalization initiatives and two or three medical-marijuana ones. We’ll see when the legislative ones start to happen, whether next year or in the years thereafter. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how quickly things have been moving in the last few years.

Do you think Obama might reschedule or deschedule marijuana before he leaves office?

Maybe. But if it’s just Schedule I to II, it’ll be of some help, but people should not be deceived into thinking that this is major, major news. It will make research and a few other things easier, but what we ultimately need is for marijuana to be descheduled [from the Controlled Substances Act]. Although rescheduling is part of our list of objectives—to II or III, or whatever—we don’t put that out there. More important are some of these laws passing or moving through Congress [such as the CARERS Act] that actually get the federal government out of marijuana enforcement. Those can actually be more consequential in many respects.

Does descheduling marijuana equal legalization?

I think descheduling would remove federal marijuana prohibition, but I’m not sure. I’ve heard endless debate about this issue. Some say, “Of course the President can do it.” Others say, “No.” I press people all the time to come up with a good answer. Could the President actually deschedule marijuana, and therefore federal marijuana prohibition would be defunct? I don’t know.

How about the Supreme Court?

One of the long-term objectives of the DPA is that we reach the day when the U.S. Supreme Court can rule with respect to the issue of drug use and possession the way it ruled with respect to gay rights and gay marriage. It’s the fundamental notion that nobody deserves to be punished for what they put into their bodies, as long as they’re not hurting other people. So I don’t think it will be marijuana specifically. It will probably be more broad. But we have a long way to go before we get there.

Ethan Nadelmann, DPA NYC 9/21/15

Ethan Nadelmann and Steve Bloom

Why is this so important to you? Why have you made it your life’s work?

I realized in retrospect that I needed to pursue a life that was going to combine something I found intellectually stimulating and something I found personally meaningful. The fact that I grew up in a religious environment, in a moral environment with a strong sense of social justice, and the fact that I went off to college and started smoking marijuana, and wondered why people were getting busted for it, and then the fact that I wanted to be a professor and find something that was emotionally engaging—I think all those things came together around this cause of ending the War on Drugs.

For more information about the Drug Policy Alliance, go to drugpolicy.org.