photo by Matt Davis

Ethan Nadelmann is still proud of rendering Stephen Colbert temporarily speechless. The founder and executive director of the national Drug Policy Alliance has been on The Colbert Report three times now, and most recently, in April, was asked whether he was high during the interview.

"I have smoked the occasional joint when I'm watching you," said Nadelmann. "But never when I'm on you."

The son of a rabbi, Nadelmann is hardly your stereotypical pot smoker. He has three degrees from Harvard including a Ph.D., not to mention a master's in international relations from the London School of Economics.

"I really like school," he jokes.

He was a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton until billionaire George Soros invited him to lunch in 1992. Now, thanks initially to Soros' generosity, Nadelmann runs a $10 million a year nonprofit aimed at driving national drug policy toward drug treatment and away from criminalization.

It's worth Googling the Colbert Report clip for the host's face as he tries to continue interviewing Nadelmann without laughing, but also, because a serious point was being made.

"It's only really been this year that I began speaking openly about being an occasional smoker," Nadelmann told the Mercury while in Portland to address a meeting of criminal defense attorneys. "In a way, the principle role model for the marijuana reform movement must be like that of the gay rights movement. So much of it is about people coming out."

Just as Harvey Milk encouraged gay men to break down stereotypes by coming out to their families in the 1970s, Nadelmann is now hoping more people in public life will admit to the occasional toke as a way of pushing drug reform across the country. "After all, the last three inhabitants of the Oval Office have all done it," he says.

OREGON'S ENFORCEMENT ADDICTION

Nadelmann has some strong opinions that might make our statewide leaders think differently about how Oregon is approaching the war on drugs.

"The war on drugs was ineffective, costly, counterproductive, and immoral," he says, in no uncertain terms.

The statistics support his position. According to the Oregon Department of Corrections, 85 percent of repeat property offenders within its custody have a moderate to severe drug and/or alcohol problem. The recidivism rate for these prisoners is 49 percent, yet only 12 percent of this population participates in substance-abuse treatment while in custody.

"The fiscal and human toll of such a myopic and misplaced approach to addiction is profound," says David Rogers with the Partnership for Safety and Justice, an Oregon advocacy organization that works with victims and perpetrators of crime and their families. "We are doing little to heal and transform impacted people, failing to break the cycle of crime, and squandering tax dollars in the process."

A report released in 2008 estimates that untreated substance abuse costs Oregon $5.93 billion each year in health care costs, lost earnings, law enforcement, criminal justice, and social welfare expenditures, according to Rogers. Meanwhile, less than 25 percent of Oregonians suffering from substance abuse are estimated to have access to publicly funded treatment.

With all these problems, it's amazing that anyone would be interested in passing new measures focused on criminalization instead of treatment in our state. But just last year, former Republican gubernatorial candidate Kevin Mannix was only narrowly defeated on Measure 61, which proposed locking up crack dealers, identity thieves, and felony property criminals for three years on a first conviction—without the option of drug treatment ["Mannix's Crack Idea," News, Feb 28, 2008].

MISPLACED PRIORITIES

Portland's own elected leaders are coy about drug reform. The Mercury sent your county and city commissioners an email last week asking where they all stood on legalization issues, and only City Commissioner Amanda Fritz and Mayor Sam Adams responded.

"I'll get right on this," said the mayor. "Right after I lower the unemployment and high school drop-out rates."

"The issue of legalization is the state and federal legislatures' purview," said Fritz. "My responsibility is to prioritize funding for treatment instead of enforcement. Treatment is both more cost effective to the taxpayers and more helpful in battling addiction."

Meanwhile, earlier this month the city reaffirmed its commitment to a program offering drug treatment to a select list of people arrested most frequently downtown ["Release the Names," News, Sept 3]. But the treatment is tied to felony convictions, which makes no sense to Nadelmann.

"The key, central belief of all this is that nobody deserves to be punished for what they put in their bodies, absent harm to others," he says. "I don't see why they've got to give them felonies. Part of it seems to be this American mentality, that people will only behave if you beat them with a stick."

Nadelmann suggests Portland should save its felony convictions for predatory criminals and consider investing in alternative ideas to control drug addiction, drug-related deaths, and drug-related crime instead. Portland's Overdose Prevention Project is a good example, he says. The group seeks to train people to avoid overdosing—the second leading cause of accidental death in the country after car wrecks, according to Nadelmann. Oregon could also consider so-called Good Samaritan laws, he says—which mean nobody gets arrested for calling 911 in an overdose situation.

FIRST WEED, THEN HEROIN

First up, Nadelmann wants the legalization, taxation, control, and regulation of marijuana—a fight he is optimistic about winning under the Obama administration, with 40 percent of Americans and 50 percent of Democrats supporting such a move, he says.

"We're arresting 800,000 people a year in this country for smoking a joint," he says, throwing up his hands.

But unlike many similar advocates, Nadelmann is also surprisingly candid on the slippery-slope question.

"In the short term we need to end criminalization of drugs for simple possession," he says. "But in the longer term, we need to move in a direction of allowing people to obtain drugs from legal sources that they would otherwise obtain from illegal sources."

Nadelmann points to successful recent "heroin maintenance" research projects in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada, where heroin addicts who have tried methadone and failed to quit are given heroin up to three times a day at government clinics, free of charge. "These people are getting jobs, their health improves, and they're not getting arrested," says Nadelmann. "In Copenhagen they've decided to skip the research phase altogether and just implement a full program."

An article in the August issue of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine even quoted Oregon Health and Science University psychiatrist Dr. Joshua Boverman saying, "Heroin works better than methadone in this population of users, and patients will be more willing to take it."

"It's not politically feasible to give heroin to heroin addicts in Portland at this time," says Boverman. "But there are other harm reduction measures we can take. My suspicion is that in America, as opposed to Canada or Europe, we see drug abuse as a personal failing and an immoral activity that should be punished."

"Many heroin addicts don't want methadone," Boverman continues. "They say they would rather die than take it, and in many cases, that's exactly what they do."

As for Nadelmann, he says he wants the country to stop spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a war we are destined to lose.

"The drug free society is a myth," he says. "Let's end the myth."