Ethan Nadelmann's Fight to Legalize Marijuana

Ethan Nadelmann was sitting in a small plane flying low over the remote, hilly farm country of Mendocino County, north of San Francisco, surveying small clusters of marijuana plants scattered among the woods and fields. "You'll see eight plants in somebody's backyard," Nadelmann says. "Or you'll see six or 12 or 22 out in a field. You see greenhouses in the middle of nowhere. You see tarps."

You don't see rolling fields of weed, just lots and lots of small clusters—and they're all over the place. Indeed, in California marijuana is a booming business. Some reckon the state's annual harvest is worth $14 billion—more than agriculture and wine combined. The local police know who's growing the stuff but can't or won't stamp it out because, frankly, the local economy depends on it. "It's big enough and legitimate enough that trying to wipe it out doesn't make sense—not from a law-enforcement perspective or a political perspective, and certainly not from an economic perspective," says Nadelmann.

The answer? Regulate it and tax it, he says. As Nadelmann, director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance Network, sees it, the entire "war on drugs" is a colossal failure, a waste of time and money that has caused far more harm than drugs themselves.

For the past two decades, Nadelmann has made this argument without much success. But lately people have been more receptive. In California, where medical marijuana is already allowed, there's now a push for full legalization, with proponents arguing that the move could bring in billions in tax revenue to the struggling state. Suddenly, Nadelmann is in demand. Recently he's appeared on The Colbert Report, Fox & Friends, and an Anderson Cooper special about marijuana. He consults with Rep. Barney Frank, who is pushing to relax marijuana laws. The folks at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws worshipfully refer to him as "our drug czar."

Nadelmann doesn't quite cringe when he hears endorsements like that, but neither does he entirely fit in with his comrades in the drug-legalization lobby. Yes, he admits to smoking pot occasionally. But you won't see him posing in High Times with an armload of giant buds, and he's not some wild-eyed stoner on a quixotic quest to legalize grass. In fact, he's a wonky, 52-year-old former Princeton professor, a studious kid who grew up the son of a respected rabbi in Yonkers, N.Y., and who graduated from Harvard with honors. Nadelmann went on to earn a master's degree from the London School of Economics, returning to Harvard to garner both a doctorate and a law degree before settling into a teaching gig at Princeton.

In other words, he's about as mainstream as it gets. Had he stuck with the law, today he'd undoubtedly be a partner at some big firm. Had he stuck with Princeton, he'd likely be tenured, with an easy courseload and heaps of time to write books. Instead, he's cranking out position papers from a cramped office on 36th Street in New York City, and every time he goes on TV he endures a bunch of stoner jokes so he can patiently explain that his crusade has nothing to do with drugs, per se, and everything to do with civil liberties. "I try to make the jokes work in my favor," Nadelmann says. "It's part and parcel of the evolution of public opinion. If you can joke about something, it's a way of saying it's not a serious issue. And if it's not a serious issue, then why are we arresting 800,000 people a year? Why are there 50,000 to 100,000 people behind bars on any given night for marijuana?"

So he grins and bears the jokes, and then emphasizes, again and again, that his crusade has nothing to do with liking pot personally. The idea is not that drugs are good but that prohibition is bad. Nadelmann argues that marijuana prohibition is as counterproductive as alcohol prohibition was in the 1920s, and that we'd all be better off if the government would just regulate and tax it. Ironically, this would give the government more control over the drug, not less. "It's commonly assumed that prohibition represents the ultimate form of regulation," Nadelmann says. "But, in fact, prohibition represents the abdication of regulation. It's the total absence of it."

Nadelmann stumbled into the drug-policy reform movement almost by accident. In 1988 he published an article in Foreign Policy that criticized the way the United States and other countries were dealing with drugs. This was the era of "just say no," and the article provoked a huge controversy. Here came this mainstream figure, a 31-year-old Princeton professor, saying that the government's approach was all wrong. Suddenly, Nadelmann found himself on TV debating the drug warriors and loving every minute of it. That's when it hit him. "It just kind of dawned on me that this is what I was meant to do," he says. "This was an area where my attraction to scholarship and teaching could be linked to what I regarded as a fundamentally moral struggle."

In 1994, with funding from George Soros, Nadelmann left Princeton to start a think tank that evolved into the Drug Policy Alliance Network. Today, the group gets about a third of its $9 million annual operating budget from Soros. The rest comes from foundations and individual donors.

At its deepest level, Nadelmann sees his crusade as a civil-rights issue: the state should not be telling people what they can and cannot do with their bodies, as long as they aren't harming others. The same argument underpins the gay-rights movement and Nadelmann has, in fact, taken a page from proponents of gay marriage, working state by state to change laws, hoping that eventually the federal government gets dragged along. "The last place to look for leadership on this is the White House," Nadelmann says. "It will have to bubble up in popular culture, at the state level, in ballot initiatives and legislative reform." Right now, about 40 percent of the public supports treating marijuana like alcohol and tobacco (versus 20 percent in the 1980s). Nadelmann estimates that change won't come until that figure approaches 60 percent. Sure, the Obama administration has made some noise about shifting resources toward treatment instead of incarceration, and about not busting medical-marijuana dispensaries. And sure, taxing marijuana like alcohol and tobacco could bring in $6.7 billion a year in federal tax revenue, says Jeffrey Miron, an economist at Harvard who has studied drug prohibition and believes it's a losing battle. Nevertheless, "Obama won't touch this issue with a thousand-foot pole," Miron says. "It would be political suicide."

Maybe that's a good thing. Certainly, there are strong arguments against the legalization of marijuana. There's the one about pot being a "gateway drug," a slippery slope that leads to more addictive and damaging substances. "Since legalization of marijuana, heroin-addiction levels in Holland have tripled and perhaps even quadrupled by some estimates," the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration claims on its Web site, under the heading "Europe's More Liberal Drug Policies Are Not the Right Model for America." Or, as former U.S. drug czar William Bennett put it during a recent debate with Nadelmann on CNN, "More kids are screwed up by marijuana than by any other drug. I see no reason to make it more available to them."

Nadelmann firmly believes that people who get messed up with cocaine or heroin would likely do so even if marijuana did not exist. And he argues that although legalization or decriminalization may well lead to greater numbers of people using drugs, that would still be preferable to the situation we have today. Is it better to have a million heroin addicts committing crimes, dying of overdoses, and getting HIV and hepatitis from dirty needles, he asks—or 2 million using legal heroin and able to live somewhat normal lives?

"We're really following in the footsteps of other movements for individual freedom and social justice in this country," Nadelmann says. "The drug-policy reform movement in 2009 really stands where the gay-rights movement was in the 1960s or the civil-rights movement was in the 1940s, or where the women's rights movement was in the early part of the 20th century. We're standing at a moment where the majority sympathizes with some of our objectives and a growing minority sympathizes with our core beliefs. And there's a growing disjunction between public opinion and what the political establishment will say and do."

Maybe we're just tired of swimming against the tide. We've been fighting the war on drugs for nearly 40 years—the phrase started with Richard Nixon in 1971—and we're currently spending $44 billion a year on drug enforcement, prevention, and treatment. Meanwhile, our prisons are bursting. In 1980 there were 50,000 people in U.S. jails and prisons for drug offenses; today there are 500,000 drug offenders behind bars. "We lock up more people on drug charges than all of Western Europe locks up for everything, and they have 100 million more people than we do. We have less than 5 percent of the world's population but we have almost 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population. We rank first in the world in per capita incarceration, and the drug war is the No. 1 driving factor," he says.

Another factor is that marijuana, which may have seemed scary back in the 1970s and 1980s, doesn't seem quite so bad now that we've got bigger things to worry about—like terrorism and war and bank failures and millions of people losing their jobs and homes. Given all that, who cares if the neighbors want to fire up a few bong hits on a Friday night? In fact, who can blame them? Nadelmann, for one, believes we're on the cusp of real change. "If somebody had told us 30 years ago that the Soviet Union would cease to exist, or that a black man would be elected president of the United States, we would have thought they were crazy," he says. "The fact is, we get used to change happening very slowly, and then all of a sudden it happens faster than we could ever have imagined. For the first time," he adds, "I really feel that the wind's at my back and not in my face."