11/06/11 Ethan Nadelmann

Century of Lies

Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance helps open the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Los Angeles before 1,300 attendees.

Audio file


Century of Lies / November 6, 2011


DEAN BECKER: Welcome to this special edition of Century of Lies. This week we’re broadcasting from Los Angeles where we’re attending the International Drug Policy Reform Conference. The opening plenary was mighty powerful. Here to tell us more about it is the Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, Ethan Nadelmann.

This taken from the opening plenary session where Ethan spoke to approximately 1,300 to 1,400 attendees – the world’s largest drug reform conference.

ETHAN NADELMANN: How many of you are under the age of 25? How many of you are over the age of 60? Let me tell you something. We are all the future of this movement. We are all the future. It is the young, the old and the between, the black and the white and the in between, the gay and the straight and the in between, the drug users and the non-drug users and the in between.

It really is a remarkable moment right now. Some of us have been fighting this for many years. But every one of us has been in this for many years knows the same thing as those of us for whom this is a new thing. Which is we have just begun to fight.

[audience applauds]

We have just begun to fight because the fact of the matter is what we’re involved in here is inescapably a multi-generational struggle. This is a multi-generational struggle. There is no 18th amendment of drug prohibition that is simply going to be repealed with the 21st. There is no “Berlin Wall” of drug prohibition that going to come tumbling down and transform the world.

We have to push and we have to push and we have to build and we have to be smart. We have no alternative. Now we also know that the unexpected can happen when you least expect it. We know that a monsterous empire like the Soviet Union can crumble when nobody thought it was possible. We know that a black man with a name like Barack Obama can become president when nobody thought that was possible.

We know that the inconceivable can happen and part of what is incumbent upon us to do is to keep envisioning the future. It is envisioning a future in which drugs are going to be as much a part of our lives as ever. Not because that is a good thing or a bad thing but because that is simply the way it is.

What we can change is not the realities or the existence of drugs in our society, what we can changes somewhat is the harms that are associated with these drugs. But what we can change fundamentally is how the government and “We the people” deal with the reality of drugs in our society.

[audience applauds]

It’s hard sometimes as an American to look at this thing with no blinders. It’s embarrassing to represent the nation that has less than 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. It is humiliating to live in a country which has increased by ten-fold the number of people locked up on drug charges since 1980. It is horrific to exist in a society which allowed a quarter million of our fellow citizens to die of HIV/AIDS because we would not embrace the common sense and scientific approaches that were established and implemented elsewhere.

In a country of the Bill of Rights to see the War on Drugs used to iviscerate fundamental freedoms is an embarrassment. To preach to others about the significance of human rights when we ourselves do not know how to respect our own society is the ultimate height of hypocrisy.

[audience applauds]

That is our tragic exceptionalism. That we have allowed this issue to become a vehicle for oppressing the poor, the vulnerable and people of color in a way that almost no society has ever done that did not have institutionalized racism on the laws on the books of its society.

But, you know, we’re making progress. We are making progress. We are making progress. When that Global Commission on Drug Policy stood up earlier this year and former presidents stood up and they said time for change - time for the legalization of marijuana, time to roll back the horrors of the Drug War, time to advance with harm reduction – they were saying and doing the right thing and they were catalyzing a debate around the world that began to penetrate not just around America and Europe and Latin America but into Asia and Africa.

When old drug warriors like Jesse Jackson and Charlie Rangel switch sides and want to link arms with us – that’s a form of progress. When people show up in this hall in numbers that have never happened before – that too is progress.

When Barack Obama got elected and in the first year of his administration, somewhat to my surprise, he made his good on his campaign commitments. In that first year what did he do? He did, in fact, roll back the oppression of federal agents in terms of medical marijuana. He did, in fact, go forward with congress, finally after many decades, legalizing funding for needle exchange. He did assist in rolling back the harsh and racially unjust crack/powder penalties. That was progress.

It’s progress when we begin to see America turning and we see fewer people locked up in state prisons last year and this year than we have after 30 years of increases. It’s progress when not just Democratic governors but Republican governors embrace prison reforms whether it’s for budgetary reasons or moral reasons or whatever. It’s progress when right-wingers stand up and create a “right on crime” initiative and say that we have gone too far on incarceration in our country.

It’s progress when we look around Europe and we see the Portuguese experimenting and getting more and more notice and we see the Danes moving forward in this way and the Norwegians in that way and the Pols in that way and the Israelis in that way.

It’s progress when people start talking about the human rights of drug users in Asia and Latin America. It is progress when people stand up and when a bald social movement leader like Javier Scilia can speak of movement, about transforming drug policies that is entirely consistent with what people on the right are saying as well. The former presidents and prime ministers of Mexico and other countries as well.

It is progress when we can force the American bureaucracies to begin to shift direction in all of this.

But, of course, that progress is too little, too slow. Barack Obama…Barack Obama…We needed you, man. We needed you. We needed you to step up there. We needed you to do the right thing and it looked like you were going to do it and what’s happened?! What’s happened?!

Now I’m not going to blame it all on you. When the Republicans take over the congress and you got a guy like Lamar Smith trying to come up with the latest, craziest drug war idea. When you got state legislatures and Republican leaders allying with Democratic leaders to ban people from receiving unemployment benefits because they smoked a joint. When you have a new drug emerging and people got to ban salvia or K2 or spice or bath salts. I mean – don’t they have better things to do already?!

[audience applauds]

But it is like Evan said. We live in a world in which there is not just the continuing viciousness of a prison industrial complex desperately defending its own interest, of prison guards unions and private prison builders and the worst of all…the worst of all the drug warriors, I have to say I believe, are the prosecutors - the District Attorneys and the U.S. Attorneys.

You know, more and more police kind of get it. They keep going along with it. It’s part of what they do. They got to bust people. They got an excuse to do it. They got the laws but the growth of organization LEAP is ample evidence that more and more law enforcement is seeing the light on this stuff.

The people in charge of running prison populations – they know overflowing with people who don’t belong behind bars and more of them are beginning to say we need change. The judges are saying, “What are we doing? We’re just rubber stamping horrific sentences that have no justice in a democratic society.”

But the D.A.s and the prosecutors…they are out of control in American society today. They are out of control. If there is anybody who is standing up as the enemies of drug policy reform today, with a few brave exceptions around the country, it is the D.A.s and the prosecutors and they have to be called out.

When they believe that they need a mandatory-minimum sentence why? Not because that mandatory-minimum sentence is justified but because it moves the power over sentencing from the judge and into their hands. Why do they want that mandatory-minimum? So they can take some innocent person caught up on the edges of conspiracy, so they can take that girlfriend of a drug dealer, so they can take a person who’s done almost nothing at all and can confront them with a 5 or 10 or 20-year sentence in order to become an informant and give the state what it needs.

You know, for so many of us who see ourselves as progressives in America and who continue to believe that government can do well if only it has the right leadership - we also understand the great evil that government can do. That even a democratic society, reputably democratic society like the United States of America, can do.

That when legislators make these laws and they let prosecutors run rampant – that leads to injustice of the sort that we see in America today. Look at what’s happening with respect of people being incarcerated for 5 and 20 years for possession of small amounts of a white powder substance.

Look at what’s happening when state laws on medical marijuana are being overwhelmed by federal law enforcement authorities who say, “It’s all against federal law and we’re going to do whatever we do regardless of public opinion, public health, public safety…public decency. Because we have the power and we will exercise it.”

We need you Barack Obama to reel that back in. And we need all of you and all of us to put the pressure on. The fact of the matter is, if they’re doing the wrong thing it’s because we’re not yet powerful enough.

Part of what we have to do is become not just respect but feared. We have to grow and grow and grow. We got to get smarter and smarter and smarter. Now what does that mean? It means that as we take the next stage of evolution as a movement, we have to keep certain things in mind.

Whenever I hear somebody say, “Why can’t we all just get along?!” I say to them, “Shut the Hell up.”


DEAN BECKER: Alright, that’s Ethan Nadelmann speaking. He’s the Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. He’s at the International Drug Policy Reform conference in Los Angeles. This is Dean Becker and you’re listening to the Century of Lies on the Drug Truth Network and Pacifica Radio.


ETHAN NADELMANN: Who is this drug policy reform movement? And some of them will say, “I know who all you are. You’re just people who want to get high.”

[audience laughs]

“Want to smoke your weed and don’t care.” You know what I say to them? There’s a little truth in that. Because we are, many of us, the people who do want to get high. And we do enjoy marijuana and that marijuana has been good to us – not bad to us. And we are the people who have had lives that have been enriched by the psychedelic experiences from LSD and mushrooms. And we are the people who have figured out how to play with the more dangerous drugs without getting caught by them.

We are the people who say if this is my pleasure or this is my vice – then it’s no damn business of the government or my employer what I put into my body. And there is no basis for treating me like a common criminal. Get the government out of my face and my boss out of my face.

We are the people who have lost children to an overdose and a brother or sister to HIV and a cousin to Hep C and whose parents were alcoholics or drug addicts. We are the people who have seen the gateway theory manifest itself in our own lives and families. We are the people who wish that we could have a drug-free society, a drug-free world but who know that is not possible and who know that no matter how much we hate drugs that the War on Drugs is not the way to deal with the reality of addiction to drugs in our society.

[audience applauds]

And you know who else we are? We’re the people who don’t give a damn about drugs. We’re the people who don’t consider ourselves drug users. I mean, our kid may be on Ritalin, our wife’s on Prozac, grandpa’s on Viagra…but we don’t see ourselves as drug users. What do we care about? We care about fundamental freedom and preserving the Bill of Rights in America.

What do we care about? We care about ending the violence and degradation and corruption in Mexico and other countries that have been harmed horrifically by the drug war. What do we care about? About ending the racial injustice and the class injustice of the War on Drugs in our society.

What do we care about? About addiction as a health issue. What do we care about? Individual freedom and human rights and civil rights and all of the important values that we care about and we target the War on Drugs because it is the single most viscous thing undermining the values that we care about deeply.

So who are we - this emerging drug policy reform movement? We are the people who love drugs. We are the people who hate drugs. We are the people that don’t give a damn about drugs. But, every one of us believe that the War on Drugs is not the way to deal with this reality in our society.

When people who are embracing 5 and 10 and 20 years in recovery can stand up and say legalize marijuana. When people who have lost somebody to a drug overdose can stand up and say end the incarceration. When people who believe that marijuana is the greatest medicine in the world can stand up with the doctors and the people suffering from pain for which marijuana is not the answer but a well-regarded opiate is the answer – then we become a movement.

When the people on the left and the people on the right, when the Gavin Neusums and the Gary Johnsons can stand up together – then we are a movement. When the young and the old stand up together – then we are a movement. When we can envision a future, a future not when our leftist ideals or our rightist ideals or the ones that vanquish, but when we envision a future in which we represent the radical center. In which we represent the people who believe in the fundamental decency of mankind. Who believe that government can occasionally do good but always has to be held accountable.

When we understand that nobody, but nobody, should be discriminated against or amongst because of what they put in there body. When we understand that our love or hatred of drugs cannot divide us. It’s all about fighting the oppression of the government and of the popular mindset that oppresses us. Then we are a movement.

When we can envision a future…sometimes I look at the societies that have fought wonderful fights against dictatorship. I look in South Africa and I look in the southern cone in Latin America and other places and what happened when truth and justice went out? What did they do? Did they massacre the people that had oppressed them? No. They setup the truth and reconciliation commissions.

I dream of the day when we have the truth and reconciliation commissions and we’re the people who participated and the War on Drugs will be brought forward to confront their victims, the people whose lives they destroyed because they were just part of the system and they were just doing their job. They will be obliged to confront what it is they did not with a threat of death or being treated as they treated others but with the understanding that we need to evolve towards a different future.

And you know who will be the advisors and consultants on those commissions? It will be the brave men and women of LEAP. It will be the law enforcement officers who fought this battle for years and came to the realization that it wasn’t right.

Now, of course, some people say, “How do we do this? Don’t we ultimately have to control drugs? Don’t we have to control them at the source?” Look at what’s going on right now. What is the future of drugs in our society and elsewhere? To some extent, of course, it’s the pharmaceutical drugs. I mean we’re always going to have marijuana and coke and cocaine and the opiates and the hallucinogens. There not going away. They’ve been around for thousands of years in most cases. They’re going to keep being around and people are going to keep loving them and getting in trouble with them.

But the pharmaceuticals…one of the centers for disease control has come out yesterday to say that now, for the first time in American history, more people died from an accidental overdose involving a drug, typically a pharmaceutical drug, than from an automobile accident. And our government can’t think of anything better to do than to crack down on…I mean, pain mills this and pharmaceutical that…all they can think of, once again, is reverting to supply control, supply control, punishment, punishment, punishment. They can’t think of anything else.

Whether we like it or not our children, our grandchildren are going to live in a world with far more psychoactive drugs than we have today. We are going to have Prozac generation 12 and Viagra generation 4 and Ridalin generation 23 and neat little combinations of all them.

We can choose on our own selves to be pharmacological leddites and abstain from all of these things but we cannot mandate that the government mandate all of us to abstain from all of these things or else we are replicating and continuing the War on Drugs into the future with a new threat.

We have to understand that when we fight against the War on Drugs we have to be clear about our principles and not all of the sudden be caught by surprise when something comes out of nowhere and all the sudden we abandon our core principles and apply the same horrific values of the War on Drugs to this new threat.

Sometimes I think about what happened in the inner-cities of American in the 1980s. When crack-cocaine came along and the crack craze and the fear in people who were poor and black and oppressed and they saw this stuff coming and what did they do? What did they do? The leaders – the Jesse Jacksons, the Charlie Rangels, the church leaders but even the average people – what did they do? They said, “We need more treatment. Yeah, we need more treatment. We need more investment in our communities but you know what else we need? We need more police. We got to arrest those people selling those drugs. We got to arrest those people using those people using drugs even if they are us we have to do that.”

They called for more law enforcement and more prisons and what happened was an unprecedented incarceration of people of color in our society that made incarcerations rates of men in South Africa look petty in comparison. They made incarceration rates of the Soviet gulags of the 30s, 40s and 50s look petty in comparison.

We build prisons to house millions of Americans, mostly people of color. We ship them from inner-cities to Upstate. The largest housing program in America became not building for families in the inner-cities but building Upstate prisons and employing under-educated, white prison guards to guard under-educated black convicts.

The lesson of that is – it is always a mistake to call in our oppressors to save ourselves from ourselves. It is always a mistake to call in our oppressors to save ourselves from ourselves.


DEAN BECKER: Alright, the speaker, Mr. Ethan Nadelmann, the director of Drug Policy Alliance, is speaking at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Los Angeles. And this is Dean Becker. You’re listening to Century of Lies on the Drug Truth Network on Pacifica Radio. Back to Ethan.


ETHAN NADELMANN: Look what’s happening today and part of what’s going on with medical marijuana is that a lot of people are making money- some of them ethically and some of them not so ethically from marijuana, from medical marijuana. We’re trying to bring this stuff above ground and we have to do it in a responsible way.

We can see what’s going on in the Netherlands now where you have a right-wing government trying to shut down the coffee shops. That they hovered in that middle ground for so many years where they never legalized the thing entirely and never fully regulated it but they kept it in a decriminalized – not just possession but decriminalized retail marketplace – that that is unstable. That’s where we are with medical marijuana today.

It means that as we try to move this thing forward we have to bolster our defense. We have to be smart. We have to call out the entrepreneurs who are acting unethically in this world. We can’t give the excuse to the federal prosecutors and the others to target the whole industry.

The oppression is as real and horrific as ever but it getting more complicated. We’re drafting ballot initiatives and we’re fighting over where we compromise on principle and policy and which interests get represented. We’re fighting over legislation and we have to battle over this. We’re fighting over resources. We have to keep making these judgments in the best possible way we can. Building a movement, taking it to the next stage, means not being distracted by the money that can be made or the burnout or the fights that can happen.

I’m inspired when I look at what’s happening with the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’m inspired when I see what’s happening with the Arab Spring. When something was as inconceivable as the fall of the Soviet Union or as inconceivable as a black man being elected president is happening around us.

I know that we can keep moving but I also know that the nature of our movement is that we will never be able to put the people on the streets the way that the civil rights movement did. We don’t have that capacity to do it. We have to be savvy. We have to be wiley.

But the fact of the matter is that we are standing on the shoulders and following in the footsteps of other movements for social justice and individual freedom. The fact of the matter is that we are like the movements for civil rights and gay rights and for the abolition of slavery, indeed. The fact of the matter is that we are fighting for fundamental freedoms and fighting against entrenched interest. The fact of the matter is that the economics of the argument are on our side whereas the powerful economic interests are on the other side.

The fact of the matter is that the only way we ultimately win this battle as we take on what may be the greatest challenge of all and the greatest enemy of all – it’s the one that lies within. Whenever we doubt our own convictions, whenever we believe on some level that our struggle for the human rights of people who use drugs is somehow a lesser struggle than the struggle for civil rights or gay rights or other movements for social justice and freedom – we undermine our own efficacy and power.

You know the early generations of women fighting for women’s rights, so many of them kept within their own conscience that on some level they weren’t truly the equal of men. That for black men and women fighting for equal rights and civil rights believed on some level they weren’t fully their equal because they were brought up in the days Jim Crow or slavery. They fought for and struggled but on some level, deep down, they couldn’t buy into it.

All the others…it’s the story, of course, of Moses and the Israelites leaving slavery and getting caught up by the golden calf because, on some level - after generations of slavery - the first generations could not embrace what freedom and independence truly meant. They had to grasp on to the old straws of fear and patterns because that’s what had been impregnated in their brains as they were children.

We have to free ourselves of that. We also have to know that if there is one quality that is required of us more than any other, more than the intellect, more than courage – it is the quality of empathy. The only way we way we win, the only way we win…we don’t have the option of beating up the opposition. They got the guns and the prisons and they still got the laws and they got the prejudices and the fears – they have so much on their side they can just stomp all over us.

We win when we extract every ounce of empathy we have within ourselves. When we can embrace and open our hearts to the law enforcers who has done his job, sometimes courageously for 20 years, and where we have been the victim and to reach into them and appeal to them and find the language that will bring them over here. We can win when we can reach and embrace the person who has struggles with addiction in their families and lost people to horrible fatalities and hates drugs – when we can reach over and explain and feel deep down not just here but here people suffering around drugs.

To the extent that we are seen as people who are pro-drug and we cannot win. It is only by understanding deeply and profoundly the fears that exist around drugs…every parent’s fear for their kid, everybody’s fear for the loss of control of drugs, everybody’s desire to control their environment, everybody’s desire to build that moat between their children and those drugs. It is only when we extract an empathic dimension of ourselves that we win.

Here’s your job. For the next three days, if you’re a marijuana activist, go to pals that have nothing to do with marijuana. If you’re a harm reduction activist, go to pals that have nothing to do with harm reduction. If you’re an American activist, go to pals that have nothing to do with America. Go and launch out.

I want you to be leaving this place transformed. I want each one of you to be starting from what brought you to this movement and going onto the next level. Because we are a movement that is going to grow and grow and grow. We are going to become more and more powerful. We are going to end the prison, we are going to use the economic arguments, we are going to use every argument at our disposal and we’re going to fight, fight, fight for the principle that nobody but nobody deserves to punished for what we put in our bodies that does not cause harm to others.

This is a fight for freedom and sovereignty and dignity. This is a fight for justice. You are, we are the vanguard of this movement. Let’s change the world. Thank you very much.


DEAN BECKER: All I can say is you should have been there. That was Mr. Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance opening up the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Los Angeles. Please be sure to check out the most recent Cultural Baggage as it features a bit more from Ethan, the Lt. Governor of California, Gavin Newsome, it’s got PW Pete and it’s got Alice Huffman of the California NAACP.

The drug war ends when you say enough. I am Dean at DrugTruth.net. Prohibido istac evilesco!


Transcript provided by: Jo-D Harrison of www.DrugSense.org