11/15/09 Ethan Nadelmann

Cultural Baggage Radio Show

Ethan Nadelmann's opening speech at Drug Policy Alliance Conference in Albuquerque NM

Audio file

Cultural Baggage, November 15, 2009


Broadcasting on the Drug Truth Network, this is Cultural Baggage.


It's not only inhumane it is really fundamentally Un-American... "NO MORE" "DRUG WAR" "NO MORE" "DRUG WAR" "NO MORE" "DRUG WAR" "NO MORE" "DRUG WAR"

My Name is Dean Becker. I don't condone or encourage the use of any drugs - legal or illegal. I report the unvarnished truth about the pharmaceutical, banking, prison and judicial nightmare that feeds on eternal drug war.


Dean Becker: Alright. No time for an intro. This is a special edition of Cultural Baggage. It is produced in Albuquerque New Mexico at the Drug Policy Alliance conference. We are listening to the opening speech from the director of the Drug Policy Alliance, Mr. Ethan Nadelmann.


Ethan Nadelmann: I’ll tell you, I am feeling good. I feel really good. I am feeling better than any time ever before, before any one of these conferences because you know right now the wind is at our back. It is at our back and we are making progress like we have never seen before. This is a moment. There is going to be more moments like this. There is going to be some setbacks and all of a sudden that wind is going to disappear from time to time. We are going to take steps forward and then a step backward as Ira was saying. But we have it now and we have to move hard and fast.

Now why is it happening now? You can see it. You know I think historically speaking I think about these sort of moments both for good and for bad when everything comes together. If you put what is happening now in a historical perspective – think back to the late teens, ninety years ago or so.

And that was a moment when we instituted and passed the eighteenth amendment of alcohol prohibition and what had come together a temperance movement had become a prohibition movement building over many decades tentatively as Americans swearing abstinence and sobriety. It was the era of World War I and anti German sentiment that led to the closing of the breweries.

It was a spirit of self sacrifice identified with World War I and the struggles we were taking. It was the women’s suffrage movement. A wonderful, powerful movement but also linked to the prohibition movement because they were subjected to what they saw as the evils of alcohol in their homes.

All of this coming together to pass this amendment, this eighteenth amendment that created as we know a monstrosity, a monstrosity of a public policy - a failed prohibitionist policy that was barely minimally effective in reducing the harms of alcohol but monstrously effective in empowering organized crime and violence and corruption and all of the other evils.

And then something else began to emerge. A counter movement began to emerge, a counter movement - people talking about, what about the crime, the violence and corruption. What about the overflowing jail cells and courthouses? What about the bootleggers and children growing up with criminals as their role models? What about the bootlegging across the borders? What about the hundreds of thousands of people dying of bad bootleg liquor?

A women’s movement came up, women for the repeal of prohibition, that became the most powerful movement for that and then of course the depression. The first, second and third reasons why the alcohol, why eighteenth amendment ended so fast was the depression, the depression, the depression. And people saying why are we spending more and more billions of dollars each year to enforce an unenforceable prohibition when instead we could be earning billions of dollars in the tax revenue on that. And so for the first and only time in America we repealed a national amendment.

Well something else came together some decades later, it was the late 1980s. The late 1980s of crack cocaine and the death of Lynn Baez, of escalating levels of violence in the streets. It was the sort of half generational reaction against the hippies of the sixties and the liberalism of the seventies and the conformism that set in the eighties among young people.

It was a Republican Ronald Reagan administration and Nancy Reagan saying just say no and people weren’t yet laughing at her. It was the expansion of drug testing in our society. All coming together to make the drug issue the number one concern in American public opinion twenty years ago. A period of mass hysteria when we implemented and passed some of the most draconian laws this nation has ever seen in a bi-partisan consensus - a drug war hysteria. Where the Jesse Jacksons and the Charlie [ ] were barely distinguishable from the William Bennets. Where the Tip O’Neils were barely distinguishable from the George Bushes. And that created, no small part of the disaster that we see today.

And now we are in another moment, and as we were in the early 1930s, yeah, we are hurting. We are hurting when the economic recession and unemployment levels like we have not seen in very, very long. Many people hurting, state budgets hemorrhaging, not knowing where our future lies and where the money must be.

But there is an upside. There is a silver lining on that horrific financial situation which is that more and more people including even politicians are realizing that we can no longer afford to pay for our prejudices. That we can no longer afford to be the world’s largest incarcerator. That we can no longer afford to fill our prisons and jails with hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people whose only offense is to buy, to consume, to sell, to make, to use a psychoactive drug which happens to be criminalized because of laws that are steeped in racism and fear and ignorance.

But it is not just the economy. As Berto O’Rourke said it is happening in Mexico across the border and it is what is happening in Afghanistan as well. When you see this vibrant underground black market economy worth hundreds of billions of dollars, ready sources of revenue for organized and unorganized criminals, for political terrorists of every stripe and every view dipping into that. The violence in Mexico has got people thinking.

Two of America’s major national security problems apart from Iraq, Afghanistan and Mexico today and that is causing people to think afresh. It’s causing the city council of El Paso, it is causing the attorney general of Arizona, it’s causing members of congress to say maybe we had better find another way. They are saying, I don’t know if it is true, that half of all the money being made by the Mexican drug gangs is coming from the marijuana business. Is it right? I don’t know. But what we do know is that ending marijuana prohibition is a highly effective way of undermining that violence.

What else is it? It’s all of the, I mean, it’s the way in which we bizarrely have to thank George Bush and Dick Cheney. Right? Because they brought disrepute to almost everything they touched. And part of what they touched was this drug war. Part of this oppression, this closing of the debate and what have you and it met all of this sentiment, this desire for an opening of a debate just brewed and brewed and got bigger and bigger waiting to pop out.

You know I am so glad that Barack Obama is our president. It is what I dreamed about all of my lifetime to be happy and proud about some guy sitting in the White House. A man who I believe has the political vision and the courage and the ability to articulate what the American people needs today and what the world needs today. I am going to give him a lot of benefits of doubt because I think that the struggles that he is confronting are extraordinary, are enormous. I think in many respects they are greater than the challenges that FDR faced when he came to power.

We need to believe in this guy and hope for this guy and we need to push him in some respects. You know it is like the stories they tell about FDR when the civil rights leaders and the labor leaders came in and they met with FDR and they said, you know, Mr. President, Mr. President, you need to do something about the horrific situation of African black Americans, of negroes in this country, the situation of labor that has been oppressed.

And what did FDR do? He looked at them and he said, I know you’re right, now make me do it. And what he meant was go out and change the political landscape so that I have no alternative but to do what is right. Don’t expect me to provide the leadership single-handedly. I need all of you to provide the leadership as well. So what are we going to do? We are going to push Obama and support him. We are going to hold him accountable and we are going to support him. We are going to change the political landscape so that he and the leadership of this country has no choice but to do what is right and what must happen.


Dean Becker: This is Cultural Baggage on the Drug Truth Network. This is Dean Becker reporting from Albuquerque at the Drug Policy Alliance conference on drugs. This is their executive director, Ethan Nadelmann.


Ethan Nadelmann: I mean, my god, we have had three presidents in a row who smoked ma rijuana. The first of course said he didn’t inhale. The second wouldn’t admit until some friend outed him. And the last one when he was asked if he had inhaled said yeah and wasn’t that the point? And many times. Well you know he is not about to go celebrate marijuana but the fact of the matter, he is a different person in there and he does get it.

Now I was little pissed off when that little town hall meeting that he kind of dismissed the whole thing. But you know the fact of the matter is this is not an issue. There is no issue of this kind of moral intensity whether the issue is abortion or gay rights or the issue of drugs where the White House can provide the leadership. This is stuff where things have to bubble up from us as citizen, as an activist in to local communities and cities and counties and states until it penetrates congress. It is up to us to make that happen.

We have leadership in congress right now. I’ll tell you something, who is in charge of congress right now? Nancy Pelosi. Nancy Pelosi from San Francisco. Nancy… and she ain’t no Diane Feinstein. I mean she does get it and her right hand guy George Miller, powerful, powerful and he just signed on to Barney Frank’s decriminalization bill. You know John Conyers, John Conyers chairing the house judiciary committee and Barney Frank ain’t just that gay congressman from Massachusetts anymore. He is chairing financial services. I mean, Henry Waxman who supported harm reduction and he is in a pivotal position as well. Look at the subcommittees, Bobby Scott from Virginia, he gets it. And you know who is chairing the appropriations subcommittee with oversight I think it is the DEA or the drug czar’s office? Dennis Kucinich.

I mean, this is a different world. And we are talking about you know in the senate. Its not just you know Pat Lehue who is an ally of ours and Dick Durbin the number two guy. It’s not just them. It is Jim Webb from Virginia, I mean you talk about a guy with guts and courage. I don’t get it. He is the senator from Virginia. He was Reagan’s secretary of the navy and he has now emerged as our champion on capitol hill.

And why are you doing it when you are from Virginia? Because it is a matter of principle. I have begun to get to know this guy and it is a matter of principle. And when I say to him where we are coming from he goes I am basically coming from the same place. Okay. Now he needs our help. Right now he is trying to get a bill through, bill through the congress to set up an independent commission and it is getting whittled away. And why is it getting blocked? Because you still have leadership in the Democratic party – the Feinstein’s of California and the Schumer’s of New York and the super majority of nine knuckleheads in the Republican party who don’t think that this stuff should get through. He needs our help to make this stuff get through there.

We need our champions and we can’t just rely on them and push them, we have to support them as well. So congress will move. Look at the stuff that is happening now. You know on the needle exchange thing, this is, some of you know this issue, the thousand foot stupid ass ban they put on trying to legalize needle exchange at the federal level but I think that thing is going to get through. And what I hear is that the right people are trying to do the right thing.

And on reforming the mandatory minimums the attorney general has made this a personal commitment. The justice department is acting in good faith. Dick Durbin is introducing bills. They are trying to Republican co-sponsors, god bless them. But you know it is going to move.

There is a commitment coming out of the White House. What Obama’s justice department did on the justice department guidelines on medical marijuana just a few weeks ago...? That was major. That was major. That was major. And what it does is it sends a signal. It sends a signal to state government that it will be ok for them to get their hands dirty and begin to get involved in the business of medical marijuana.

It means that to the extent of our evolution it involves local government becoming involved in the regulation of this because that is what is needed to legitimize our cause. That is what happened. That they can no longer say that the feds are against us. They can no longer say we can’t do this because we don’t know what the feds will do. It opens the door.

Even the drug czar saying quietly so far let the states deal with that marijuana issue and you know that is good enough by me. I am not looking for Kerlikowski to make any bold statements on marijuana. Keep talking about treatment instead of incarceration. Keep talking… I am looking for him to say those words harm reduction however. Yeah, those are words that we need to hear coming out of the mouth of the drug czar and the president. Harm reduction. Harm reduction.

You know it was a good thing back eleven years ago Rudy Giuliani wanted to shut down methadone maintenance in New York City. Best thing that ever happened to methadone maintenance was Rudy Giuliani wanting to shut it down. Because all of a sudden all the people, even those who were lukewarm about it had to stand up and say wait a second, it has got a role to play.

And the media… Every methadone store in the media was always a bad story about something bad happening. All of a sudden massive public education and McCaffrey one of the few good things he did as drug czar, he came to New York City. He visited a methadone clinic. You know what Kerlikowski has to do? He has got to go visit a needle exchange program. That is what he has got to do.

Now there is a bigger question of course about where are we headed. Where are we headed? Because you know in a way our struggle is not just the struggle of the moment. It is a multi generational struggle. It is in part about drugs, about the reality of all drugs. About the fact of the matter that not only have we never been a drug free society, not only will we never be a drug free society but that in fact the diversity and variety of drugs is just going to grow and grow.

Turn on the television which I don’t so that often but turn it on and when you do look at those commercials, one after another after another… Do you feel sad? Do you feel depressed? Anxious? Worried? Do you feel anything at all because we have a drug for you oh yes we do.

And you know for better or worse that is the future. We will have drugs being produced legally and illegally by multinational pharmaceutical companies and underground laboratories producing things to make us go from sick to fine and from fine to better. That is the wave of the future and the question for us really is how do we accept that reality?

We know we know after decades of failure that we cannot build moats between ourselves and our children and those drugs, between ourselves and those drugs. It doesn’t work. It cannot happen. Who has the best access to drugs in America today? It’s young people. Who had the best access twenty years ago? Young people. Who will have the best access? Young people. We are not going to protect our kids by more and more people going to prison, by fantasizing about more and more moats.

Now I want to make an analogy here. I want to make an analogy because there is another drug out there. It is a powerful magnificent drug, it is a drug which virtually every one of us is involved with. It is a drug which we love, which we cannot imagine living without and also a drug that sometimes we wish we could do without. It is the drug which has created enormous mayhem and chaos and death and suffering and also enormous pleasure and wonderment and all of these good things.

The role of the criminal law has to be at the edges for the people who are under the influence and put other people directly at risk. But we can’t accept the reality. We can accept the independence and the freedom of people to utilize these things, to consume these things as they wish and to hold them responsible for the ways in which they use them. We can look for ways to make them safer to use. We can provide honest education, not DARE type programs but cultural wide, society wide education.

Because ultimately the best protection we have in moving forward in to a world of ever more drugs is not a punitive system of criminal prohibition. It is the empowerment and the education of us, the consumer, of us, the human being, of us, the one who lives day in day out with our own pains, our own grievances, our own urges, our own everything.


Dean Becker: Yes this is Cultural Baggage and this is Dean Becker reporting from Albequerque where I recorded this speech at the Drug Policy Alliance conference of their executive director, Mr. Ethan Nadelmann. Please listen up.

Ethan Nadelmann: Some people wonder why is Drug Policy Alliance putting so much effort into the area right now of reducing overdose fatalities. Accidental overdoses have tripled or quadrupled in the last decade or two. Accidental drug overdoses id taking tens of thousands of lives each year. It is killing more people than auto accidents in about fifteen or sixteen states. It is the number two leading cause of accidental death in America today.

The drug czar is beginning to get it but people aren’t really talking about it. Why are people dying and increasingly not from the street heroin but from the pharmaceutical drugs? Why is this happening? Well in part because of a drug war prohibitionist system that requires people to get their drugs from the street. In part because we don’t believe in honest education. In part because we believe if only we crack down hard enough on people diverting these drugs that somehow we are protecting. But we cannot. Not with the internet, not with everything else. We cannot in that way.

So this is a struggle to reduce the number of people dying from overdose fatalities. It is like the struggle to reduce the number of people unjustly incarcerated in American societies. This is not just about reducing the oppression of the government although that is our objective first and foremost. It is also about reducing the harm and the suffering that attends the use of drugs in our society. It is both those struggles that we have to pursue simultaneously.

It is about the victims of the drug war, the victims of the police, the victims of prohibition laws, the victims of the people who have suffered with HIV and hepatitis C and who are dying of overdoses. That is part of it. It is not the only people we represent but they are a fundamental part of what we are.

And who else are we? We are the people of color who have been horribly victimised and targeted in this war on drugs and we are the people of lesser color who have also been so horribly victimized by these laws and policies. We are all people who care about freedom and justice but understand that we are all part of one struggle.

You know I don’t know what is going to happen with this marijuana thing. It is going to be rocky. Look what is going on in California right now. Richard Lees put together an initiative probably going to be on the ballot. Other of my allies are saying too soon, too fast, don’t like the design. We can’t control the whole thing.

One way or another there is more people fighting for the struggle. It is going to be rocky. Who knows? Look at the struggle for gay marriage right now. Step forward, step backwards, this, that. You can’t control this thing. We have got to be smart. We have got to be wise. But we have got to continue to operate in good faith with one another. That is part of it.

And I will tell you, I found myself recently… I am going and speaking at conferences with doctors who specialize in pain medication and I am saying to them, listen, there is no basis in medicine or science or ethics for you not to utilize medical marijuana in treating pain and problems and to consider that an important option. And then that evening I go and talk to a marijuana reform group and I say let me tell you something. There is no basis for you to demean and diminish the millions of Americans who rely legitimately on opiod medications to deal with their pain and their struggling. We are all in this, about the rational utilization about this. Yes we can say the opiods are more dangerous and you can overdose and die but that doesn’t mean they don’t have legitimate uses for millions and millions and millions of people. Let us not make those separations.

You know the psychedelics area… Psycheldelics, I love the psychedelics area. I mean part of is cause the one area where we can really talk good stuff about drugs. And now more and more literature emerging about dealing with pain and addiction and all sorts of other things. And it is not just the scientific… Speaking personally as somebody who will admit that psychedelics have played an important role in my life and my evolution. I mean right now I have to say in my life you know it’s kind of… I regard psychedelics a little bit like the way I do fasting on Yom Kippur, once a year just to cleanse the soul and open up the spirit. Keep me honest.

But this movement is also, this movement is also about people in recovery. It is about the millions of people who have struggled with addiction and seen the worst that drugs can do. It is about the millions of brave people hanging on to the twelve steps in sobriety with their bare fingers knowing that avoiding the use of these drugs is pivotal to their lives, their future, their well being and the people around them.

It is about the people in recovery who have put a life of addiction to heroin and cocaine and booze behind them but have found that smoking an occasional joint or a little glass of wine, that’s ok. I can take the medications the doctor offers me. That for me the definition of recovery is not just sobriety, the definition of recovery can be putting a problem with my drugs behind me so that today I can still use drugs and they are no longer a problem for me or anybody else I deal with.

Because you know it’s not just Americans sitting here, right you know. As an American first of all to the hundreds of you from outside the United States you know I want to apologize. I want to apologize for the ways in which my government and my country has victimized so many countries around the world. I want to apologize for us imposing our way of being on all of you. I want to apologize for the punitive prohibitionist system we have exported.

But I also want to say looking around the world I see lots of hope. I look down in Latin America and I see that Latin American commission, those former presidents telling it the way it is. That we have a problem with punitive prohibition and that harm reduction and marijuana decriminalization are part of the answer and that we have to break the taboo on open and honest dialogue just as Senator Webb is calling for in Washington DC.

I look at the changes in law in Mexico I know they are not as great as we all said they were but still it is a step forward. And the change in Argentina and the emerging changes in Brazil and Chile and Ecuador. There is a movement happening. It is about harm reduction. It is about the legalization of coca and the legitimization of coca. It is about ending eradication campaigns. It is about opening up the debate on ending prohibition in the Americas. There has been movement in Latin America in the last year like never ever before.


Dean Becker: Once again, you are listening to Cultural Baggage on the Drug Truth Network. We are listening to a speech given by Mr. Ethan Nadelmann at the Drug Policy Alliance conference in Albequerque.


Ethan Nadelmann: I look in Europe. You know, the Portuguese. Who knew? Right? But my god here they did a diversion and it wasn’t about drug courts, it was about if you get caught with drugs we are not sending you to prison. We are going to send you to a panel of health experts that exist outside the criminal justice system to see if you need help and if you don’t we will leave you alone and if you do we will try to figure out the best thing and the cops don’t got to get involved in the whole business.

It is about Switzerland and Germany and England and the Netherlands legalizing heroin maintenance. And it’s about our friends in Denmark saying we don’t need anymore research anymore to tell us that heroin maintenance works. We are going to start it January first, skip the research stage. We know it works; we don’t have to prove it all over again here, right?

It is about when the backward home secretary of the United Kingdom fires the government’s drug policy advisor, David Nut for speaking the truth. It is about the outrage that responds to that thing. It is about people saying maybe we made a mistake. It is about a transformation from ten years ago when firing somebody like that would have just been politics as usual to now it is, what are you doing? Isn’t there science that we are talking about and when does that have to be abdicated in favor of politics?

There is a reaction that is happening. It is the Czechs who have just decriminalized drug possession and will institute that in January. It is the movement happening in Europe. Even when you read about the Dutch coffee shops being pulled back a bit, the Dutch still providing a model for us. And in Canada, as for your national government, Stephen Harper? Your god left, prime minister, chasing after the failures of the American drug war. Chasing like a stupid dog not knowing any better, right? But he will pass, he will be gone and it will move on forward.

In Asia, if somebody had said ten years ago that in Malaysia and Indonesia and Vietnam and in China and Iran you will have needle exchange programs and methadone maintenance programs you would have thought you were smoking something really funny. But every one of those countries is doing that now. Still in the midst of a horrific drug war system where drug treatment is really an excuse for incarceration but none the less moving forward.

There is a global movement emerging and with people saying we are at a tipping point now, I don’t think we are at a tipping point the way I would say it is. We are getting awfully close to something that looks a lot like a tipping point. It ain’t there yet.

We are confronting ignorance and fear and prejudice and profit. When you are dealing with ignorance what can you do? Educate. When you are dealing with fear, what do you do? You hold somebody’s hand and you take them through whether the fear is the fear of what their children might succumb to in their vulnerable teenage years or whatever it might be. When it is prejudice, you have to open things up and put it on the table so people are obliged to lose their prejudices. We have to come out of the closet so that people know the truth. But when it is profit, when it is vested interest, that is what we have to fight. Right now the number one factor holding back reform in this is the prison industrial complex. It is the law enforcement establishment.

I say I want to thank and god bless all of the brave members of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition who are sprinkled throughout this audience and who are standing up here today. But we have to take them on. We have got – there is nobody so arrogant in America today as a district attorney, bloated by his power, unchallenged, able to apply that criminal law and then not only to enforce the laws but to propagate and to proselytize for the laws. Those are the people that we need to win over and come out. Those are the people we need to target.

Some place sitting in this audience I believe is David [ ] district attorney from Albany New York one of the few people to take on this system. But we need to support others taking on this system. They are digging in and they are going to be coming back and they are fighting hard. If we have a target for our anger our anger should be directed at them because they are the ones who are holding back the movement for freedom and justice.

We are fighting for principle, for the principle that nobody deserves to be punished simply for what we put into our bodies absent harm to others. We are fighting for a principle that nobody deserves to be discriminated against or amongst simply based upon what we put into our bodies. We are fighting for that core principle. We are fighting for rolling back and repealing the criminalization and the criminal justice system.

We are standing on the shoulders and following in the footsteps of other movements for freedom and social justice, other movements for gay rights and civil rights, of women’s rights and the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. Our struggle will be long and it will be hard. I have just begun to fight and I know you have too. It is going to be an amazing three days. God bless you all.


Dean Becker: You know normally I don’t carry a full speech and actually I didn’t, it was thirty-six minutes whittled down to twenty-six but that was Mr. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Their website: drugpolicy.org.

Be sure to tune in to this week’s Century of Lies when we will hear interviews I conducted with Mr. Ira Glasser, twenty-five years as head of the ACLU. He also spoke at this convention and we’ll hear an interview I did with Mr. Danny [ ], author of a brand new book out of the UK, After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation. Sorry but we have no time to Name That Drug by its Side Effects. And as always I remind you that because of prohibition, you don't know what's in that bag, please, be careful.


To the Drug Truth Network listeners around the world, this is Dean Becker for Cultural Baggage and the Unvarnished Truth.

This show produced at the Pacifica studios of KPFT, Houston.

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