October 8, 2003

Fighting the War on Drugs

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Ethan Nadelmann, drug policy reform activist and former Princeton professor, spoke to students yesterday about building a political movement to end the war on drugs while also discussing his role as an activist within the movement.

Nadelmann said that the government’s current drug war is “doing more harm than good,” arguing that non-violent drug use should be treated “primarily as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue.” He addressed the need for harm-reduction intervention that would treat drug offenders instead of incarcerating them.

Nadelmann’s movement has called upon ballot initiative legislation to reform drug policy at the state level. In Arizona and California, two such initiatives were passed to make treatment available to non-violent drug offenders rather than sending them to jail.

In the case of the California initiative, proposition 36, 61 percent of the voting population supported treatment and was willing to double state funding for that treatment, according to Nadelmann. Even though funding was doubled, taxpayers saved a total of 1.5 billion dollars over five years for not having to expand the prison system.

“We can’t be a drug-free society. The real challenge is learning to live with drugs while at the same time minimizing their harmful effects,” he said. Whereas the United States continues to spend money on making our society “drug-free,” Nadelmann argued that the issue needs to be viewed more realistically. Regarding drugs, he said, “it’s gonna be produced legally or illegally — one way or another.” Because, as he said, “you can’t change people’s desires,” the goal of the government should be to minimize harm to drug users.

According to Nadelmann, in the United States, “250,000-300,00 people are infected or dead because of dirty needle use.” He explained that In Australia and Great Britain, the HIV rate is between 5 and 10 percent, whereas in the United States, nearly half of intravenous drug users in the 1980’s and 90’s had contracted HIV. Nadelmann proposes that the government should, at the very least, make drug use safer for those who are determined to do them, supporting harm reduction programs such as safe needle exchanges.

He also stressed that many diverse groups of activists must work together to make an impact on drug policy reform: “The growing movement has its own internal divisions,” he said, continuing, “Some people see the issue as one of racial justice and don’t care about the other stuff. Some come from a medical marijuana standpoint, some from a libertarian standpoint … and for some people, it’s about hallucinogens. We’re all part of the same puzzle.” Nadelmann addressed the need to attack the issue from all sides since many organizations, from HIV advocacy groups to women’s groups, have a stake in the matter.

Nadelmann’s interest in drug policy reform was piqued as a grad student at Harvard. He worked in the state department’s narcotics unit, interviewed drug enforcement agents and saw how those incarcerated for drug possession were treated. “It was an interesting form of graduate research,” he said.

To date, Nadelmann has attracted national interest in drug policy reform through articles in journals like International Organization, Daedalus and Foreign Policy. He has also appeared on many news shows, including Nightline and Larry King Live, and has written a book, Cops Across Borders. Additionally, he is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit organization. The Alliance’s stated mission is “to end the war on drugs and promote new drug policies based on science, compassion, health and human rights,” according to the organization’s website.

Students reacted positively to the lecture. “I didn’t realize the amount of issues involved,” said Max Bushell ’06.

“It’s nice to see someone recognizing that there are two sides to an issue. All those people in one way or another are affected by this,” said Seth Palmer ’06. “He definitely grabbed me — I was pulled in.”

“I thought he was a genius to tell you the truth,” said Daniel Truini ’06.

Prof. Mary Katzenstein, government, said that the decision to invite Nadelmann to campus had a lot of support. “He’s one of those rare individuals who has been able to bridge academia and activism.” Nadelmann’s visit was sponsored by the University Lectures committee, the Peace Studies Program, the American Studies Program, the Department of Government and the Cornell Program for the Study of Contentious Politics.

Archived article by Irena Djuric