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Ethan Nadelmann on the Shadow Convention and the war on drugs
(CNN) – Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and director of The Lindesmith Center, a drug policy and research center supported by philanthropist George Soros. Nadelmann is known for his critiques of U.S. drug prevention and control policies. A former assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, Nadelmann also created the Princeton Working Group on the Future of Drug Use and Alternatives to Drug Prohibition.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Ethan Nadelmann, and welcome.
Ethan Nadelmann: It's good to join you. This is Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center - Drug Policy Foundation, which is the leading organization in the United States advocating drug policies based upon common sense, science, public health and human rights.
Today we were the convener of the "Failed Drug War Day" at the Shadow Convention, which is a collective effort to address those issues that we can be sure the Democrats and Republicans will not be addressing -- honestly or at all-- at their conventions.
Chat Moderator: Why is the Shadow Convention choosing to focus on drug prevention instead of other pressing social issues, such as welfare or education reform?
Ethan Nadelmann: One has to pick and choose, but if there's one issue that is absolutely pregnant with the need to be addressed by our so-called political leadership, it is the failed drug war in the United States.
There are almost half a million Americans behind bars today for breaking a drug law. The United States incarcerates more people for drug law violations than Western Europe incarcerates for everything, and they have more people than we do. There were 50,000 people behind bars on drug charges in America in 1980; now we have almost a tenfold increase. Yet extraordinarily few politicians are talking about that.
There are now 200,000 Americans who are either dead or dying of drug-related HIV/AIDS - much of which could have been prevented by sensible public health measures of the sort that Europe and other parts of the world implemented many years ago. But none of the politicians, with a few exceptions, are talking about that, either.
Question from V6: What successes has your organization had in reforming drug policy?
Ethan Nadelmann: First, to learn more, go to our Web site, www.drugpolicy.org.
There’s the beginning of real reform happening in the United States. It started with the medical marijuana ballot initiatives -- first in California in 1996, then in Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C. in 1998 and then in Maine in 1999. Now, for the first time, a state legislature -- in Hawaii -- has passed medical marijuana legislation, not through the initiative process, but through the legislature, with the support of Governor Cayetano. In Arizona, the electorate voted in favor of initiatives to substitute treatment for incarceration.
Now Proposition 36 in California offers a similar opportunity for voters in that state. If it succeeds -- and the public opinion polls strongly suggest it will -- the results will be 25,000-35,000 fewer nonviolent drug offenders being sent to jail or prison next year. California citizens will see $1.5 billion over the next five years by not having to build new prisons and housing these nonviolent offenders. And, the initiative will provide $120 million in new funding for drug treatment.
Look at New York, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. In all three states during the past few months, state legislatures have enacted laws to make sterile syringes more readily available in pharmacies, in order to reduce the spread of AIDS and hepatitis. So, one can see real substantive change in a growing number of states around the country.
Meanwhile, in New Mexico, Governor Gary Johnson, a Republican, has become the first governor in the United States to call for major drug policy reform, including both marijuana legalization and the adoption of "arm reduction" approaches to heroin and other drugs.
In California, Republican Congressman Tom Campbell -- who is currently running for the U.S. Senate -- is the first politician in America to run for statewide office on a platform that includes major drug policy reform.
Both of these Republican politicians spoke this week at the Shadow Convention in Philadelphia, where Reverend Jesse Jackson joined them. Reverend Jackson condemned the growing "prison industrial complex" that is increasingly driving American drug policy. "The United States," Jackson said, "has five percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prison population." This needs to come to an end -- all agreed at the Shadow Convention today.
Question from Jules: Do you believe that we will see the legalization of marijuana in the near future?
Ethan Nadelmann: I think support is growing for a policy of marijuana decriminalization. The number of Americans arrested each year for simple marijuana possession has more than doubled from under 300,000 in 1992 to over 600,000 this year.
Meanwhile, 80 million Americans admit to having smoked marijuana at least once. We have a president who smoked, even if he didn't inhale. And we have two major party candidates, each of whom has said or suggested that he committed certain violations of the drug laws in his youth.
If we're lucky, Americans will start to look to the successful approaches in countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany and Australia, where both local and national governments are searching for ways to effectively regulate marijuana markets in order to reduce both drug abuse and drug-related crime.
Question from Rilian: Mr. Nadelmann, what is your opinion on the legalized heroin in Vancouver clinics?
Ethan Nadelmann: When it comes to dealing with heroin addiction, the United States could dramatically reduce the number of illegal heroin users -- as well as the negative consequences of heroin use, such as overdose deaths -- if we would only take off our ideological blinders and embrace pragmatic approaches.
The first thing we could do is make methadone maintenance much more widely available, not just through specialized clinics -- which neighborhoods often resent -- but also through pharmacies, doctors' offices, hospitals and other medical facilities. The evidence is in on methadone maintenance. It is more effective than any other form of treatment in terms of reducing illegal heroin use and the deaths, disease, crime and suffering associated with illegal heroin use.
But methadone doesn't work for everyone, which is why countries like Switzerland, England, the Netherlands and Germany have all begun experiments to prescribe pharmaceutical heroin to long-term addicts who are unable to quit by any other means. The results from Switzerland show that their heroin maintenance trials have proven to be dramatically successful in reducing illegal drug use, reducing drug-related crime and disorder, reducing AIDS, hepatitis and other infectious diseases and producing a net savings to Swiss taxpayers of roughly $30 per day for every day that a heroin addict remains in the program.
Now, Spain, Portugal, France, Denmark, Luxembourg, Australia and Canada are all planning -- or contemplating -- similar programs in their own countries.
Americans would be foolish to close their eyes to such effective alternative approaches just because some politicians see such profit in demagoguing against these alternatives.
Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?
Ethan Nadelmann: Drug policy reform may well emerge as THE new movement for political and social justice in the United States during this decade. Come to www.drugpolicy.org if you want to get involved.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today!
Ethan Nadelmann: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure being on this chat.
Ethan Nadelmann joined the Allpolitics Chat via telephone from the Shadow Convention in Philadelphia. CNN.com provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of that chat.
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