Saturday, June 08, 2013

Rolling Stone profile of Ethan Nadelmann

Rolling Stone magazine gives the full rock star treatment to my friend Ethan Nadelmann in the current issue.

In 1988 and 1989, three events thrust drug legalization onto the national agenda -- where it remains -- as the primary remedy for the dual problems of drug abuse and the disastrous unintended consequences of drug prohibition. Ethan played a key role in that moment that this profile does not share.

The first event was a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors by Baltimore's new mayor, Kurt Schmoke, calling for drug legalization to address the crisis of the new AIDS epidemic, among other things. Schmoke, the city's first African-American mayor, was a former United States Attorney and former elected State's Attorney for Baltimore City. Mayor Schmoke was an important political figure making an unusually frank and significant statement at obvious political risk. With a bullet-proof background in the Ivy League and as a well-regarded prosecutor, his courageous stance had an unchallenged political legitimacy.This event was stunning in its timing -- Nancy Reagan was still First Lady, just saying "No," Congress was developing of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, and the crack cocaine epidemic was growing and become more violent.

In September 1989, new President George H.W. Bush, speaking from the Oval Office announced an anti-drug strategy from the first modern "drug czar," Dr. William Bennett. Politicians had been pushing a "war on drugs" for eight years, and the nation was really ready for some new thinking.

As Bush's speech was being written, one of the nation's most prestigious intellectual journals, Science, published an article by Dr. Ethan Nadelmann making a case for legalization. This peer-reviewed article blessed the intellectual legitimacy of the critique of prohibition, the second key event.

Third, the morning after the President's address, it was attacked at a well-attended press conference in a Washington, DC with Ira Glasser, head of the ACLU, Neal Sonnett, a very distinguished bar leader and President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Dr. Arnold Trebach of the Drug Policy Foundation, Don Fiedler, Esq. head of NORML, and Rev. Andrew Leigh Gunn, head of Clergy for an Enlightened Drug Policy. I had set up the press conference and was moderator. The national news media reported our critique of the enforcement emphasis of the drug strategy as a terrible failure, and that it needed to be replaced by legalization. For the first time, drug policy was no longer reported as the tit for tat of Democrats and Republicans trying to sound tougher than the other.

Schmoke's speech, Nadelmann's article, and the organized voices of a drug policy reform movement demonstrated a moral vision, an intellectual maturity, and a political and media savvy that planted drug legalization firmly in the national discourse about drug policy. The legitimacy of prohibition was, from that point on, always under attack!

It took several years for Ethan Nadelmann to move to the center of the drug policy reform movement. Rolling Stone outlines the seminal moment of his leadership, Proposition 215 in California in 1996. Ethan saw the emerging opportunity, recruited the major funders and political strategist Bill Zimmerman, which resulted in marijuana winning one million more votes than Bill Clinton winning re-election in California.

Ethan's enormous charisma and intelligence, and his tremendous accomplishments -- especially at the international level -- are the raw material for a rock star media profile. Getting admitted to Harvard, and getting three degrees from Harvard -- a B.A., a law degree and a Ph.D. -- is a very rare achievement. Getting the substantial philanthropic support of one of the most enlightened billionaires in history -- George Soros -- was not accidental or coincidental, it was earned! Getting invited and making countless speeches to the key gatherings around the world demands enormous stamina and self-possession. It demands an enormous personal sacrifice.

Naturally, since the article is about him, the article necessarily ignores the many people who also played and continue to play absolutely essential roles in drug policy reform. If all that one knew about drug policy reform was a reading of Rolling Stone, one would be sadly ignorant of  others who played perhaps even more profoundly inspirational roles over the past 40 years in creating the modern drug policy reform movement. First, of course, Keith Stroup, the founder of NORML, and then, Dr. Arnold Trebach and Kevin Zeese, the founders of the Drug Policy Alliance (then known as the Drug Policy Foundation), Julie Stewart, the chief co-founder of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), Rob Kampia, the chief co-founder of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), and Jack Cole, the most prominent of the three co-founders of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), along with Peter Christ and Howard Wooldridge. These men and woman have been essential to building a movement.

For the last 15 years, the Marijuana Policy Project has been, in my judgment, equally important if not more important than the Drug Policy Alliance in building the drug policy reform movement in the U.S., and enacting marijuana law reforms at the state level.

Ethan has a volcanic speaking style, a rock star charisma, and an intellectual brilliance that dazzles the audience -- whether a convention hall, a board room, or a funder in her living room. He deserves every inch of his Rolling Stone profile. Rob Kampia has an political vision, and strategic talent for making shrewd bets in politics and personnel, and a management capacity to drive a team that is enormously effective in hitting its targets and achieving results.

There are dozens of other men and women around the nation whose vision, passion and voice have been critical to victory in one state or another, and in helping sustain the organizations that make up the movement. I am thinking of Dr. Dale Gieringer, the leader of California NORML, Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris, writers, activists and editors of the West Coast Leaf, or Mason Tvert of SAFER in Colorado. In state after state, completely off the national radar, there have been hundreds of men and women who prodded the legislature, the Governor, the media and the other key actors to get a medical marijuana law enacted, or to build a state-wide organization.

As an intellectual descendant of Hegel's I believe that progress moves ahead in the struggle of thesis and antithesis. Would Ethan be as successful if not for the rivalry for movement leadership from Rob Kampia and MPP? Would he be as intellectually forceful if not for the challenge to his ideas by Dr. Mark Kleiman, once a colleague at Harvard? Kleiman, now at UCLA, is the intellectually furious Socratic challenger to much of drug policy discourse -- harassing reformers, Congress and the White House with equal vehemence, and is now leading a team to advise Washington state authorities on the practical challenges of legalizing marijuana under state law.

I have known, admired and been fond of Ethan since he was a graduate student at Harvard. He is a warm and loyal friend. He is a genuine intellectual rock star, and at this moment in his World Tour he fully deserves this wonderful profile in Rolling Stone! I encourage you to read it.

Share the article with your friends, and if you are not yet a member of Drug Policy Alliance, join and donate monthly, as I do.

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