PT445 – The Drug War, Harm Reduction, and the Middle Ground Between Liberty and Regulation

September 26, 2023
Featuring: Ethan Nadelmann

In this episode, Joe interviews Ethan Nadelmann: author, speaker, Founder and former Executive Director of Drug Policy Alliance, host of the PSYCHOACTIVE podcast, and one of the leading voices in drug policy reform and harm reduction. 

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In this episode, Joe interviews Ethan Nadelmann: author, speaker, Founder and former Executive Director of Drug Policy Alliance, host of the PSYCHOACTIVE podcast, and one of the leading voices in drug policy reform and harm reduction. 

Nadelmann shares his journey from Princeton University to founding Drug Policy Alliance, to working with George Soros, encouraging Gary Johnson to push cannabis legalization, and interacting with prominent figures like Milton Friedman and Grover Norquist. He explores the motivations behind the drug war, the massive growth of incarcerations it led to, why the US spread its war on drugs abroad even when it went against our best interests, and, thankfully, the progress made in fighting the drug war – particularly with cannabis and psychedelics.

And he discusses much more: the banning of drug testing kits; the damages of our slow learning curve against the idea of a safe supply; the risks of under-prescribing opioids for people who actually need them; how libertarians, the right, and left are all starting to become against the drug war for the same reasons; why cigarette smokers should all switch to vaping; the concept of needing to pass a test at the pharmacy to prove you understand (and won’t abuse) medication; and some strong arguments for decriminalization as an incremental step. And he asks some pretty important questions that we can all simmer on for a bit: how do we find a balance between helping people and not opening the rest of society up to harm? How do we challenge abuse in a way that doesn’t hurt future harm reduction efforts? And how do we incentivize people into acting in their own best interests? 

Notable Quotes

“The drug war resulted in the unnecessary arrests of tens of millions of Americans, the unnecessary incarceration of millions of Americans (oftentimes for very long periods of time), hundreds of thousands of people dying in this country with HIV/AIDS unnecessarily, tens of thousands dying of overdose unnecessarily. That was the drug war.”

“If I could snap my fingers and all of the 30, 35 million American cigarette smokers in the country today, or all of the 1.1 billion smokers around the world were to suddenly stop smoking cigarettes, and all of them were to take up vaping (the e cigarettes); …it would represent one of the greatest advances in public health in U.S. and global history, because the risks of smoking are so dramatically, dramatically greater than the risks of consuming nicotine in non-combustible forms.”

“You look at people pursuing that type of legal course of action where they claim it’s about helping bring attention, but in fact it’s having exactly the opposite results. Yes, it’s important to fix these things, but the methods and ways you go about it are incredibly important. It’s just like the same thing when you had that case involving the therapist in the MAPS training program who did stuff that was sexually inappropriate, etc. And on the one hand, you definitely need people to bring attention to that, and more credit to them for bringing attention to those abuses. On the other hand, one has to have the basic realization that that happens in all areas of psychotherapy. You can’t eliminate this stuff. It’s human nature, it’s humankind. You can minimize the incidence of it, you can bring attentions to the abuses, but make sure that what you’re advocating as the fix is not leading to doing more harm.”


PSYCHOACTIVE podcast Ethan Nadelmann: Why we need to end the War on Drugs U.S. Drug Policy: A Bad Export, by Ethan A. Nadelmann

Nudge: The Final Edition (Revised), by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Visit and use code REMPSYCTODAY for 10% off your registration.
Ethan Nadelmann

In this Episode

Ethan Nadelmann

Ethan Nadelmann is host of the podcast, PSYCHOACTIVE, as well as founder and former executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the nation’s leading drug policy reform organization. Described by Rolling Stone as “the point man” for drug policy reform efforts and “the real drug czar,” Ethan is widely regarded as the outstanding proponent of drug policy reform both in the United States and abroad. He was born in New York City, received his BA, MA, JD and PhD in Political Science at Harvard, taught at Princeton University (from 1987 to 1994) and then founded and directed first The Lindesmith Center (1994-2000) and then DPA (2000-2017). He also co-founded the Open Society Institute’s International Harm Reduction Development program. Ethan has authored two books on the internationalization of criminal law enforcement — Cops Across Borders and (with Peter Andreas) Policing The Globe — published extensively, and spoken publicly in roughly forty states and forty countries. His TED Talk on ending the drug war has over two million views, with translations into 28 languages. Ethan and his colleagues were at the forefront of dozens of successful campaigns to legalize marijuana, reduce the incarceration of drug law offenders, treat drug use and addiction as health, not criminal, issues, and otherwise promote alternatives to the war on drugs. He played a key role as drug policy advisor to George Soros and other prominent philanthropists as well as elected officials ranging from mayors, governors and state and federal legislators in the U.S. to presidents and cabinet ministers outside the United States.

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