Ethan Nadelmann Discusses Why We Need To End The War on Drugs (Transcript)

Ethan Nadelmann at TED Talks

Ethan Nadelmann, a drug policy reformer, TED Talks on Why We Need To End The War on Drugs

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Ethan Nadelmann- Why we need to end the War on Drugs


What has the War on Drugs done to the world? Look at the murder and mayhem in Mexico, Central America, so many other parts of the planet, the global black market estimated at $300 billion a year, prisons packed in the United States and elsewhere, police and military drawn into an unwinnable war that violates basic rights, and ordinary citizens just hope they don’t get caught in the crossfire, and meanwhile, more people using more drugs than ever. It’s my country’s history with alcohol prohibition and Al Capone, times 50.

Which is why it’s particularly galling to me as an American that we’ve been the driving force behind this global drug war. Ask why so many countries criminalize drugs they’d never heard of, why the U.N. drug treaties emphasize criminalization over health, even why most of the money worldwide for dealing with drug abuse goes not to helping agencies but those that punish, and you’ll find the good old U.S. of A.

Why did we do this? Some people, especially in Latin America, think it’s not really about drugs. It’s just a subterfuge for advancing the realpolitik interests of the U.S. But by and large, that’s not it. We don’t want gangsters and guerrillas funded with illegal drug money terrorizing and taking over other nations.

No, the fact is, America really is crazy when it comes to drugs. I mean, don’t forget, we’re the ones who thought that we could prohibit alcohol. So think about our global drug war not as any sort of rational policy, but as the international projection of a domestic psychosis.

But here’s the good news. Now it’s the Russians leading the Drug War and not us. Most politicians in my country want to roll back the Drug War now, put fewer people behind bars, not more, and I’m proud to say as an American that we now lead the world in reforming marijuana policies. It’s now legal for medical purposes in almost half our 50 states, millions of people can purchase their marijuana, their medicine, in government- licensed dispensaries, and over half my fellow citizens now say it’s time to legally regulate and tax marijuana more or less like alcohol. That’s what Colorado and Washington are doing, and Uruguay, and others are sure to follow.

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So that’s what I do: work to end the Drug War. I think it all started growing up in a fairly religious, moral family, eldest son of a rabbi, going off to university where I smoked some marijuana and I liked it. And I liked drinking too, but it was obvious that alcohol was really the more dangerous of the two, but my friends and I could get busted for smoking a joint.

Now, that hypocrisy kept bugging me, so I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on international drug control. I talked my way into the State Department. I got a security clearance. I interviewed hundreds of DEA and other law enforcement agents all around Europe and the Americas, and I’d ask them, “What do you think the answer is?”

Well, in Latin America, they’d say to me, “You can’t really cut off the supply. The answer lies back in the U.S., in cutting off the demand.”

So then I go back home and I talk to people involved in anti-drug efforts there, and they’d say, “You know, Ethan, you can’t really cut off the demand. The answer lies over there. You’ve got to cut off the supply.”

Then I’d go and talk to the guys in customs trying to stop drugs at the borders, and they’d say, “You’re not going to stop it here. The answer lies over there, in cutting off supply and demand.” And it hit me: Everybody involved in this thought the answer lay in that area about which they knew the least.

So that’s when I started reading everything I could about psychoactive drugs: the history, the science, the politics, all of it, and the more one read, the more it hit you how a thoughtful, enlightened, intelligent approach took you over here, whereas the politics and laws of my country were taking you over here. And that disparity struck me as this incredible intellectual and moral puzzle.

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There’s probably never been a drug-free society. Virtually every society has ingested psychoactive substances to deal with pain, increase our energy, socialize, even commune with God. Our desire to alter our consciousness may be as fundamental as our desires for food, companionship and sex. So our true challenge is to learn how to live with drugs so they cause the least possible harm and in some cases the greatest possible benefit.

I’ll tell you something else I learned, that the reason some drugs are legal and others not has almost nothing to do with science or health or the relative risk of drugs, and almost everything to do with who uses and who is perceived to use particular drugs.

In the late 19th century, when most of the drugs that are now illegal were legal, the principal consumers of opiates in my country and others were middle-aged white women, using them to alleviate aches and pains when few other analgesics were available. And nobody thought about criminalizing it back then because nobody wanted to put Grandma behind bars.

But when hundreds of thousands of Chinese started showing up in my country, working hard on the railroads and the mines and then kicking back in the evening just like they had in the old country with a few puffs on that opium pipe, that’s when you saw the first drug prohibition laws in California and Nevada, driven by racist fears of Chinese transforming white women into opium-addicted sex slaves.

The first cocaine prohibition laws, similarly prompted by racist fears of black men sniffing that white powder and forgetting their proper place in Southern society. And the first marijuana prohibition laws, all about fears of Mexican migrants in the West and the Southwest. And what was true in my country, is true in so many others as well, with both the origins of these laws and their implementation.

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Put it this way, and I exaggerate only slightly: If the principal smokers of cocaine were affluent older white men and the principal consumers of Viagra were poor young black men, then smokable cocaine would be easy to get with a prescription from your doctor and selling Viagra would get you five to 10 years behind bars.

I used to be a professor teaching about this. Now I’m an activist, a human rights activist, and what drives me is my shame at living in an otherwise great nation that has less than 5% of the world’s population but almost 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. It’s the people I meet who have lost someone they love to drug-related violence or prison or overdose or AIDS because our drug policies emphasize criminalization over health. It’s good people who have lost their jobs, their homes, their freedom, even their children to the state, not because they hurt anyone but solely because they chose to use one drug instead of another.

So is legalization the answer?

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