11/13/19 Ethan Nadelmann

Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Ethan Nadelmann
Drug Policy Alliance

REFORM conference in St. Louis with Ethan Nadelmann Drug Policy Alliance founder, Rev. Edwin Sanders of Metropolitan Church in Nashville & Chad Sabora of St. Louis harm reduction group Monetwork.org

Audio file



NOVEMBER 13, 2019

DEAN BECKER: Hi, folks. This is the Cultural Baggage program on Pacifica Radio and the Drug Truth Network. I am your host, Dean Becker, the Reverend Most High.

The following was recorded a few days ago in St. Louis at the Drug Policy Alliance Conference (DPA).

EDWIN SANDERS: I am Edwin Sanders, I am a Senior Servant at Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, TN., we are a congregation that is committed to radical inclusion but also we are a congregation that is very much committed to addressing social justice issues in a way that allows us to have to respond to what is happening as it relates to issues of drug policy, and health with regard to infectious disease, HIV, mass incarceration, reproductive rights, and we could go down the list in terms of economic opportunities and developments. One of the things that I always insist upon people appreciating is this is not a single-issue dynamic. There is a way in which what we do in terms of drug policy reform is very much connected to all of the other ways in which the injustices are being perpetrated upon communities that are most disproportionately impacted. One of the things that we are trying to do is to make sure that the divisive and fragmented forces that are very often at work as a primary agenda to keep the efforts of the collective body of people that bring the compassion, concern, and dedication. There is a way in which all of those things come from a place within that allow us to be able to transcend the ways in which we often have things defined to us as being impossible or somehow out of reach in the realm of reasonable. It is only the people who move beyond the ways in which logic and reason have been misused thinking that does not lend itself to an openness that takes one beyond the ordinary.

DEAN BECKER: Let me interject a thought here. What you began is a list, if you will, of problems – situations that we are having to deal with in our society, many of which do spin off from this “belief” in the drug war that was developed 100 years ago that has unfolded itself over the years and being more draconian, more time behind bars, etc., but that is beginning to unwind I think. More and more areas of concern that you are addressing are being exposed as less than perfect. They are being shown to be in need of change and it is giving a lot of people like the good folks here at DPA the courage, motivation, and inspiration to work harder to expose and end these fallacies. Can I get your thought there, Sir?

EDWIN SANDERS: I think one of the things we have come to realize in our societal reality is that whenever you hear the word war, you need to just look and begin to try to see and understand where the money is because we historically have had a war economy. Whenever you hear the language of war people talk about a war on poverty but we know that the war on poverty was no more than a way in which dollars were put in to the economy in a fashion that allowed it to pass through the hands of people who desperately needed resources, but have no way to develop and use those resources other than to put them back in to the same system that had been a part of what created a need for the change. This is true whenever you see the word war. We now know that the war on drugs translated in to mass incarceration, it translated in to the ways in which there was the undermining of the opportunity for economic development and growth within a sector of our community and the people within that community who have always been disenfranchised, disinherited and left outside of the equation of inclusion. One of the things you have to do is appreciate the fact that in too many instances we have not been able to deal with the obstacles that are before us in terms of change because we have gotten sucked in to the notion of believing that the ways in which the measures of success are driven by the factors that are no more than a part of what is an extension of that economic reality, which ultimately has never been in the interest of those who are marginalized and those who are on the periphery and have been systematically left out of the circle of inclusion in our society. You see that whether it comes under the name of immigrant, under the name of lack of education, under the names of all kinds of labels, but the fact is it is the way in which there has not been a welcome for those persons who have been outside of that circle. There has never been a welcome mat there. It began with the various ways in which people have come to this place that we call America, and also the ways we dealt with indigenous people that were here when the first Europeans arrived here. There has always been a dynamic at work that has systematically undermined the viability of long-term opportunity for people who are not included in which the idea of what was to be. You hear people talk about America being America again. America being America again means looking at the ways in which the issues of segregation, disenfranchisement in terms of citizenship. There have been people over and over again who were victims of a mentality that was driven by an idea of development, the things you get taught and the misinformation like the language of manifest destiny was part of the development of this country. All of that is a part of what we are still dealing with to this day. This is the aftermath, this is the remnant of that mentality but the remnant is now becoming the building block of another dimension of the same kind of perpetual exploitation and oppression of people.

DEAN BECKER: Reverend Edwin Sanders, thank you Sir. That was Reverend Edwin Sanders with the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, TN.

We are in St. Louis at the Drug Policy Alliance gathering – major event, lots of wonderful things going on. There are a whole lot of folks with important information to share and who did I run in to? The previous Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, Mr. Ethan Nadelmann. How are you doing, Ethan?

ETHAN NADELMANN: I am doing great! I am enjoying my retirement, Dean.

DEAN BECKER: We know you are never really retired, but I know you are slowing down. We will just go along with that. Now Ethan, it seems prohibition is always creating new problems, it is always finding a way to make things worse. There is a new situation that is happening to us now, these vape pens. They are killing some people; injuring a lot of folks and there is a lot of concern as to why and or how we can do anything about it. You have been looking in to that a lot, have you not?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well I tell you, Dean, what really got me – I have been following this issue around e-cigarettes and tobacco/nicotine harm reduction for a long time. Sometimes I organize the sessions on this at the DPA biennials in the past because nobody in the organization was doing it so even though I was the ED, I would do that. It always seemed to me there was a lot in common between the tobacco harm reduction stuff and the other harm reduction work we are doing. It is all about meeting people where they are at; it is taking people who are engaged in a risky or dangerous behavior who are unable or unwilling to stop doing what they are doing, and to give them some alternatives that reduce the risk to their health and to their wellbeing. This all seemed fine and good, but then what has happened is that the opposition to e-cigarettes and to tobacco harm reduction is flabbergasting to me. It seems at this point we are in a new drug scare and moral panic around the issue. There was the issue with JUUL becoming immensely popular among young people and that is a real issue – teenager’s vaping.

DEAN BECKER: They are colorful, have flavors and galore, right?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Flavors, and even more than the flavors it is this handy little device. It is discreet and it became cool and hip. JUUL unfortunately did some marketing that was teen friendly early on but I think even if they hadn’t done that marketing this thing probably would have taken off before a whole set of reasons. The amazing thing about JUUL, and a lot of these other e-cigarette devices and vaping devices is that they are the most effective way for cigarette smokers to quit. Cigarette smokers who have tried doing things like patches, gums, and pharmaceuticals – the evidence is now showing that basically e-cigarettes can be twice as effective as these other things. The second thing is that by in large, e-cigarettes (although we don’t have the 40-50 year longitude studies but there are a lot of toxicology reports and studies – Publish Health England, which is the British equivalent of our Centers for Disease Control (CDC) came out two years ago saying that e-cigarettes are probably 95% safer than is smoking cigarettes. Even our own National Academy of Science Engineering Medicine came out and said they didn’t know if it was 95%, but clearly a lot safer in terms of reducing exposure to all of the things in cigarettes that kill you. Even the CDC acknowledge this! Put it this way, if one could snap one’s fingers and tomorrow all 35 million people in America who smoke cigarettes were to entirely switch to vaping and keep vaping for the rest of their lives it would be one of the greatest advances in national or global public health history. The fact of the matter is that number of Americans who believe that vaping is as or more dangerous than smoking cigarettes has gone from a third of the country to 60-70% now, so there is massive misunderstanding, massive miseducation all sorts of people who might benefit from switching from smoking to vaping aren’t doing it or their families are discouraging them because they think it is actually as bad or worse. The majority of Americans think that nicotine is why cigarettes cause cancer. Nicotine doesn’t cause cancer, it is what hooks you. It is the burnt particle matter, the tars and all of the other crap in combustible cigarettes that kills you. So I am concerned with this massive misinformation campaign and then along comes the scare with these lung injuries and deaths. We are in mid-November right now and there has been 1500-2000 hospitalizations and three dozen deaths. The evidence is suggesting that at least 85% of these cases involve people getting sick from using THC cartridges that were obtained either illegally or from friends, which are being produced by gangsters who should be behind bars.

DEAN BECKER: Kids in their garage.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Kids in their garage or maybe not kids, but other people who are cutting it either carelessly or intentionally with things like Vitamin E oil, which is fine to eat but not good to mix and then vaporize or there may be other issues. So we know that the major part of this problem and maybe the vast majority of this problem involves illicit THC cartridges. What is the government doing right now? They are going out there and saying this is the reason we need to ban flavored e-cigarettes, which has nothing to do more or less with this whole thing. This is the reason that Massachusetts Governor Baker is saying that they are going to ban the THC vapes – the ones that have been sold in stores for years with no problem. The government is instituting bans, i.e. prohibitions on legal products which will thereby push people more to the black market which is where the problem was to begin with, right? For me I feel like it is Drug War 2.0, so I have a new hashtag on Twitter, #TheNewDrugWar, #DrugWar2.0. I am seeing the whole thing happen. We feel like we almost won the battle on marijuana legalization and now I am witnessing the new prohibition on another drug. Although many people in the illegal harm reduction area (which is yours and my world) get it, my political allies – the people in politics (Liberals, Progressives, Democrats) who have been our allies on drug policy reform and harm reduction are typically the ones on the other side of this issue so that is very disillusioning.

DEAN BECKER: I want to throw this thought back to you, Ethan, the fact is that those 2,000 hospitalizations – the few dozen deaths that have occurred – lets stack that up against the 200,000 people who have died from using actual tobacco in these last six months. It is so out of proportion, is it not?

ETHAN NADELMANN: It is totally, wildly out of proportion and I think that people in power understand tobacco harm reduction. For example, the FDA just approved Snuts which is a tobacco pouch that you can put in there that is proven effective. Sweden introduced this years ago and it became popular among men; not women. The rate of cigarette smoking among Swedish men dropped to the lowest in the entire European Union and it is almost impossible to explain that without the uptake and the use of Snuts. There is another thing called Ikos, which is a heat not burn device in which you put the tobacco like the old packs or something, except a more sophisticated version. The FDA hasn’t allowed the makers of Ikos to promote it as a harm reduction device but they are allowing it to be sold. So people are accepting to some level of harm reduction. The fact that JUUL took off like wildfire among kids freaked everybody out but then I see the arguments they are using. They are talking about e-cigarettes being a stepping stone to smoking cigarettes and while it is true that kids who smoke e-cigs are more likely to try cigarettes than kids who don’t try e-cigarettes but when you look at the ones who go on, the vast majority are not going on to smoking and for those that do they just try a cigarette and the ones who are trying a cigarette are typically the ones who might have smoked a cigarette before they ever used an e-cigarette; or kids who would have gone to cigarettes but for the existence of e-cigarettes so you are talking about – I used to say about the marijuana gateway hypothesis is that an ounce of truth is better than a pound of BS It is the same thing about this stuff – an ounce of truth is better than a pound, or in this case an ounce of truth is better than a kilo of BS. Then they talk about the adolescent brain. We know that you don’t want kids getting addicted to nicotine it is a powerful substance but we heard this on the marijuana thing, too. There was some element of truth to it, but to exaggerate these risks? Then they say that e-cigarettes and the adolescent brain and I am thinking 50% of America’s greatest generation were smoking cigarettes and nobody ever talked about the brain damage of all of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. The hypocrisy of it! You see the headlines, “25% of All Teens Are Vaping E-cigs”. Read the small print. What is their definition of a vaper? A person who tried an e-cig at least once in the past month. That defines it? If I am somebody who eats red meat once or twice a month that defines me as a meat eater but I look a lot more like a vegetarian or a pescatarian then a daily meat eater. The distortion is –as you see I am getting animated here.

DEAN BECKER: This is wonderful news for all of us really. Ethan, this organization – Drug Policy Alliance has been the leader, it has been the respected organization that has drawn attention from educators like Marsha Rosenbaum has done here recently and from politicians at every level; state, federal, local because you guys have the clout. You have the knowledge, the experience, the people and you have made one hell of a difference over the decades now and I wonder if you might give us a brief summary of what has been accomplished during your tenor here at DPA?

ETHAN NADELMANN: I go back to teaching at Princeton and speaking publicly in the late 80s, early 90s. In 1994 I left the university and created the Linda Smith Center. I built that up for six years while also being on the board of the Drug Policy Foundation and then in 2000, we merged the two to create Drug Policy Alliance so I sort of date my days going back to the mid-90’s or even earlier. Obviously the most dramatic success was on marijuana and one of the things I take the greatest pride in is having played a role in moving the country from 25% support for legalizing weed to over 60% and from zero states legal for anything to over 35 states legal for medical and 11 states legal for all adult use. That is a monumental transformation and to do that in the country which was the global drug war leader for most of the past century – to poke those holes and move strategically and advance the medical marijuana issues state by state thereby transforming the imagery and the public discussion around marijuana at large and then to shift public opinion – all of that stuff I take enormous pride in. At this point, I think we basically won. The bigger fights are over what the marijuana market going to look like and given that we live in the most dynamic capitalist society in history are we really going to be able to build the significant social and racial equity part in this and I think we have to try. For me I think that is something for the next generation to focus on. It is something that I care about, but for me the big picture was ending marijuana prohibition. That was a third of our work.

You take the second third of the work which was really about ending the role of the drug war and mass incarceration and thereby driving down mass incarceration as much as possible, and in that respect, just as the war on drugs drove mass incarceration in the 80s, 90s, and early 00s so drug policy reform was the cutting edge of criminal justice reform beginning in the late 90s and in to the 00s and in to this decade. You look at Rockefeller drug law reform in New York, you look at reform of mandatory minimum sentences at the state level and the federal level. You look at our work to get rid of these bogus drug-free school zone laws which are basically mandatory minimums with better marketing. We really led the way on all of these things. Our ballot initiative in Arizona ’96, and California treatment instead of incarceration. At this point there is still a huge amount to go. Drug arrests unfortunately are still going back up again but at least we are bringing down the numbers of people locked up in state prisons and such on drug charges. You look at places like New York, New Jersey, California, which really drove the big increase in numbers – those have come down the fastest.

DEAN BECKER: Texas is still hanging in there.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Texas is hanging in there but even there it has come down somewhat on the drug numbers. I think that now the criminal justice reform field where for decades, apart from Soros there was very few other people funding. Now there is oodles of funding coming in to this movement. People are taking on everything from bail reform to other elements of sentencing reform, to taking on the deeper structural issues around this stuff, to taking on bad prosecutors in their own races so it is a much broader field where drug policy reform still plays an important role, but where I think the niche is much more focused on ending the criminalization of drug possession because it is still the #1 cause of arrest in America, it is still filling if not state prisons, definitely local jails.

DEAN BECKER: I would think you would take to heart in what just happened in Oklahoma where they took 450 former felony cases, mostly drug related and dropped them to misdemeanor and let those folks out of prison just this week.

ETHAN NADELMANN: That is right. I think Oklahoma had a ballot initiative not long ago that was successful as well so even a place like Oklahoma – some of the people in Oklahoma have a senator who looks like a right-wing Neanderthal to the right of Jeff Sessions almost except with maybe a prettier face. You have got some bad stuff going on there but it is really encouraging to see even in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana you have good stuff happening. Then you look at the last third of our work which is really around harm reduction. We kind of led the way with some allies on legalizing access to sterile syringes through pharmacies and needle exchange programs in the 90s and in to the 00s. In the big states like New York, New Jersey, California and elsewhere I got Soros to be the #1 private funder of needle exchange for many years back in those days with still a long way to go. We organized the first international conference of preventing overdose fatalities in Seattle, Washington in January 2000; almost 20 years ago when overdoses doubled from five to ten thousand at that time. We have been committed to this issue for ever and ever. We have led the way in drafting better Naloxone access legislation, 911 Good Samaritan Laws trying to take those steps. Now it feels like all the people who were hesitant (cops, drug czars, etc.) are now really embracing Naloxone and 911 Good Samaritan Laws as the right way to go. There is still a lot to do on that front. There are the safe injection facilities where it looks like safe consumption rooms was going to move forward. I am perpetually disappointed that we haven’t made more progress on allowing access to legal pharmaceutical grade heroin in clinics the way the Europeans and Canadians are doing. The greatest frustration is that the basic ethos of harm reduction, the basic notion that you should not be putting people behind bars for simple drug use or drug possession no matter how many times they use if they are not getting behind the wheel of a car or hurting somebody. We are still struggling to get the public to really accept that. The public goes along with the view that we don’t want to throw somebody with a drug addiction the first couple of times they get caught or do something bad but if they aren’t going to get clean we gotta lock them up. In trying to go to that Portugal model, the more European model I was mentioning you never lock somebody up for simple drug use or possession. Getting people to understand that the 12-step model, the AA model – while it helps a lot of people, there are other ways that work for other people often times more successfully. We are making a lot of progress in breaking through that paradigm but we have a long way to go still.

DEAN BECKER: I promised you a short interview – we have about gone four times over what I had thought we would but I want to thank you once again – not just for Drug Truth Network, or my listeners, but for everybody in the United States and worldwide for the work you have done. Thank you, Mr. Ethan Nadelmann.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Dean Becker, than you very much and for you who I describe as the person who will go down in history as the oral archivist of this movement. I think you play an incredibly valuable role in talking to everybody involved in this thing for decades now and it is going to make a big difference. Historians are going to rely very heavily on the stuff that you are producing, never mind the people who benefit probably right here today and now. Thanks, Dean.

DEAN BECKER: We are here at the Drug Policy Alliance gathering in St. Louis, Missouri. I am speaking with Mr. Chad Sabora, he is with MoNetwork based here in St. Louis. He has many packages sitting on his table of Narcan, the nasal spray. Hello Chad.


DEAN BECKER: Tell us about the work you do.

CHAD SABORA: We run a hybrid harm reduction recovery community center. We treat people and engage them at wherever there are at in their journey whether they are still actively using with no intent on stopping, still using with the intent on stopping, along with early recovery and long-term recovery. It doesn’t matter – we take a look at the individual and help them accordingly to reduce harm to themselves, harm to society and sustain their current recovery or offer them alternatives if that is what they are seeking.

DEAN BECKER: That is unique – a new hybrid perspective that is being accepted more and more; that you meet people where they are at.

CHAD SABORA: We are one of the first hybrid recovery community center models in the country that encompass the whole spectrum.

DEAN BECKER: Tell us a little bit of the history behind that?

CHAD SABORA: We have been operating this recovery community center since 2015. We have been an organization since 2013. We are heavily involved in policy reform, we wrote all of the Naloxone laws in Missouri including 911 Good Samaritan Law. I personally wrote all drug policy law in Missouri. I was a heroin user up until 2011, I was also a former prosecuting attorney in Chicago as a drug user so I had an interesting perspective on our drug laws and our war on drugs so when I found recovery I dedicated our work toward more policy reform.

DEAN BECKER: That is marvelous news. Sometimes it takes people hitting rock bottom to find themselves again – to recreate themselves, does it not?

CHAD SABORA: I hate to use the words rock bottom because –

DEAN BECKER: I did, too.

CHAD SABORA: --That is death considering that Fentanyl has poisoned our drug supply, but yes. It takes what it takes for somebody to want recovery and even in they just want to use they are still human beings and should still be treated with dignity and often healthcare and other resources. So for people listening, your views on drug use, drug addiction are not your fault. We have had broken drug policy in this country since Chinese immigrants brought over opium in the 1840s so your understanding of drug use, drug policy, criminalization was almost subconsciously implanted in to you by your dad, your grandparents, your great-grandparents during the early 1900s when they passed the Harrison Narcotics Act to make all drugs illegal. A couple of Supreme Court cases that dictated what treatment was legal and what treatment wasn’t legal so everything we have done on this country so far has built a faulty foundation based on criminalization, prohibition, and arrests. We have to tear down this foundation and rebuild it in a public health setting.

DEAN BECKER: Folks, if you want to learn more I would urge you to go to www.monetwork.org. Chad Sabora, thank you very much.

CHAD SABORA: Thank you.

DEAN BECKER: Well that’s about all we can squeeze in this week. I want to once again thank the Reverend Edwin Sanders, I want to thank Ethan Nadelmann, Chad Sabora from MoNet, and I want to thank you for listening. We are going to have about six or seven of these shows from St. Louis, I urge you to tune in during the coming weeks. I gotta wrap it up folks.

Again I want to remind you that because of prohibition you don’t know what’s in that bag. Please be careful!

Cultural Baggage is a production of the Pacifica Radio Network, archives are currently stored at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, and we are all still tap dancing on the edge of an abyss.