Ethan Nadelmann: Reflections on the Best Year Ever in Drug Policy Reform

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December 18, 2013 - By Ethan Nadelmann

I’m just reflecting on what may be the best year I’ve had in all my years working to end the drug war.

The big news last week was out of Uruguay, where the Senate approved a bill championed by President José Mujica to legalize marijuana. It was an honor for DPA to be involved in the historic process, as we were in Colorado and Washington. One of my colleagues, Hannah Hetzer, relocated to Montevideo for much of the year, where she acted as liaison among activists and experts in the United States and Uruguay while working on the public education campaign with Uruguayan civil society organizations. That country now becomes the first in the world to legally regulate marijuana, effectively leapfrogging the Netherlands, where retail sales are legally tolerated but production and wholesale distribution remain illegal. We are here to support our friends and allies in Uruguay with the next set of challenges as they move forward with implementing the new law.

I’m not one to use the term “tipping point” lightly, because one can only say you’ve hit it so many times before losing one’s credibility, but I do think we’ve hit the tipping point on marijuana legalization – for three reasons.  The victories in Colorado and Washington last year were striking, not least because the marijuana legalization ballot initiatives each garnered 55% of the vote (which was more than President Obama received in Colorado and almost as much as he received in Washington).  Governors in both states then committed to implementing the new laws in good faith, and the Obama administration, somewhat to my surprise, decided to allow these efforts to proceed.  Meanwhile, the latest Gallup poll on marijuana legalization found a remarkable ten point jump in support for legalizing marijuana – from 48% last year to 58% now.  These results are confirmed by both public and private polling in states around the country – not just in the states you’d expect but even in Missouri, Indiana, Texas, Florida and Louisiana!

What’s next on this front?  We’re working with local allies in DC, including members of the City Council, to push the envelope on decriminalizing marijuana, and in Oregon, where marijuana legalization will almost certainly be on the ballot next November.  We also drafted and filed a marijuana legalization initiative in California and will decide in the next month or two whether to proceed with collecting the signatures to put it on the ballot in 2014; much will depend on whether we can secure commitments of funding sufficient to justify moving forward in the nation’s most populous (and thus expensive) state.  Meanwhile, we’re determined to legalize medical marijuana in New York – now the only state in the Northeast other than Pennsylvania where it’s not – and to help our allies in Florida do the same, which would make it the first state in the South with legal medical marijuana.

Unfortunately, the rapidly rising support for legalizing marijuana has not yet translated into rapidly falling arrests for marijuana possession.  No other law is both enforced so widely and harshly yet deemed unnecessary by such a substantial portion of the populace.  Our efforts in New York over the past few years have contributed to a major drop in arrests, but there are still far too many.  Last week I was in Louisiana, whose rate of incarceration is the highest of any state or country in the world, and where multiple convictions for marijuana possession can result in many years in state prison.  And all around the country young black men are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession even though they’re no more likely than young white men to have pot in their pockets.  That’s why marijuana legalization is not just a matter of responsible fiscal and public safety policy but also one of civil rights.

What about the rest of drug policy reform apart from marijuana, in particular the role of the drug war in driving mass incarceration in the United States?  Here I’d say we’re at more of a turning point: the country seems headed in a new direction – with even the U.S. Attorney General now speaking out forcefully against over-incarceration – but it’s like trying to turn around an ocean liner.  Even when it’s pointed in a new direction, it can take a long time to counter the inertial forces that drove it in one direction for so long.  The prison industrial complex is a fearsome force in our society, with ample fiscal and political resources as well as the ability to play on popular fears and prejudices. But we are gaining traction and making progress with varied incremental victories that chip away at the numbers of people behind bars for non-violent drug offenses, even as we advance a longer term vision of radically reducing incarceration in our country.

In some respects our most complex challenge is transforming the popular belief that drug use needs to be a criminal justice issue.  It’s that belief that fills our jails and prisons, wastes tens of billions of dollars per year, forces people who don’t need treatment into “treatment” while making it unappealing or inaccessible for those who really do need help, and discourages people who have witnessed an overdose from calling 911 right away.  I’m particularly proud of our recent victories in passing 911 Good Samaritan laws so that people who call 911 in response to a friend’s overdose don’t need to worry about being arrested for trying to save someone’s life.  (We even persuaded New Jersey’s Governor Christie to change his mind and sign such a bill into law.)  Fatal overdoses are now the #1 cause of accidental death in the United States, surpassing automobile collisions. I’m meeting more and more parents who have lost a child to an overdose, and who are partnering with DPA so that fewer parents suffer their fate.  For me and my colleagues, our work in this area – which also includes increasing access to naloxone (the remarkable antidote for an overdose) – has become an organizational passion.  It’s part and parcel of our broader mission to reduce the harms of the failed war on drugs and end the criminalization of drug use and possession.

An international plenary session at DPA’s biennial conference – in Denver, two months ago – simultaneously showcased the policies we advocate and the respect we’ve earned around the world.  The chief of staff to Uruguay’s president explained his government’s support for legalizing marijuana; the foreign minister of Guatemala elaborated on why his president stepped out in calling for radical reform of global drug policy; the outspoken Czech drug czar called for revising the international anti-drug conventions; the head of Portugal’s drug policy explained his country’s emphasis on decriminalization and public health; and a representative from New Zealand described the new law that will allow synthetic recreational drugs to be approved through an FDA-like regulatory process, thereby undercutting the illicit market and reducing the risks and harms to consumers.

So, yes, it has been a very good year for drug policy reform.  That plenary session would not have been possible just a short time ago.  Legalizing marijuana was no more than an abstract policy option just two years ago.  And the doors now open to me and my colleagues were firmly shut until, it sometimes seems, just yesterday.  Do we still have a long way to go?  Yes.  Will we encounter setbacks and lose momentum at times?  Most certainly, yes.  But we’re riding a wave right now, and we’re not going to stop until we win.

Many thanks for all you’ve done and can do to support our work – and let me know what you think of my reflections.

Best wishes for the holidays.

Ethan

Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org).

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