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Ethan Nadelmann On Arnold's Brave Call For A Pot Debate


Nug of the Month: Aug 2008
Arnold Schwarzenegger proved last week (May 5) he's not a girly-man when it comes to the debate over whether marijuana should be legalized and taxed in California.

Gov. Arnold called for a large-scale study of the consequences of legalizing pot for recreational use in California and suggested that the study might benefit from looking at the effects of drug legalization moves already made by European countries.

It's true that Schwarzenegger is a lame duck and that his politically daring call was driven largely by his bankrupt state's search for new sources of tax revenue.

But Arnold still earned high praise from drug-law reformer Ethan Nadelmann for doing what most politicians are too chicken to ever do — go on record as being in favor of honestly discussing the pros and cons of ending drug prohibition.

Nadelmann, who believes drug prohibition has failed miserably wherever it's been tried, is executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (drugpolicy.org), which promotes alternatives to the federal government's failed war on drugs. I talked to him by phone May 8.

Q: This talk about legalizing marijuana and taxing it — is it merely a result of the dire budget problems states like California are having?

A: That is the single most important thing driving it now. Why was alcohol prohibition repealed so quickly in the 1930s? People were pointing to the crime and the violence, the corruption, the violation of civil liberties, the disrespect for the law, the people dying from bad liquor — all those reasons were motivating people to call for repeal. But, ultimately, the first, second and third reasons were the Depression, the Depression, the Depression.

Similarly today, people are looking at the violence in Mexico, where marijuana is a major source of revenue for the drug gangs. There are a lot of things going on, but clearly it is the recession, the recession, the fear of depression that are the number 1, 2 and 3 reasons for somebody like Schwarzenegger.

Now mind you, it's all in a context: I don't think they would be calling for this if we had not seen a very significant jump in public support for taxing and legalizing marijuana.

Q: For those who don't know what your official position on U.S. drug policy is, please spell it out.

A: Basically it boils down to three elements. The first one is that we believe that we should move in a direction of treating marijuana more or less like alcohol. Secondly, we basically believe that nobody should be punished for possessing a small amount of any drug simply for their own use, as long as they are not hurting anyone else, like getting behind the wheel of a car. Thirdly, although my organization has an internal debate about whether to legalize or how far to go on the other drugs, our basic view is that we need a vigorous debate in this area and we need to move in the direction of taking as much of the drug market from the underground and bringing it above ground so it can be effectively regulated.

Q: The model being the way we changed from prohibiting alcohol?

A: With marijuana, that's clearly the model. If you look, for example, at what five countries in Europe and now Canada are doing, which is allowing he*oin addicts to obtain their he*oin from clinics, that's not really legalization, but it's poking a hole in prohibition. It is providing legal access to a drug that addicts would otherwise obtain illegally from the black market. I don't think we are likely to see a 21st Amendment repealing drug prohibition. I think it is going to be more of an incremental process where we find ways to remove more and more of this from the black market.

Q: If Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to learn from the Europeans, what will he find that would help him make a persuasive case for legalization?

A: The most persuasive evidence will come from the Netherlands. The Netherlands changed their law in 1976. Their sort of coffee-shop distribution system for cannabis evolved over a decade. Remember, the Dutch have not fully legalized cannabis. It's essentially legal at the retail level but it's still illegal at the wholesale side. But basically any adult who wants to buy cannabis -- by which I mean marijuana or hash -- can go into a coffee shop and buy it. If that coffee shop tries to sell them white powder stuff or sell to underage people, it'll be shut down by the authorities.

What they'll find is that the levels of cannabis use in The Netherlands, both among young people and others, is lower than it is in the United States. What they'll also find is that the percentage of young people who use cannabis and then go on to try quote-unquote "harder" drugs is less than it is in the United States. The Dutch can claim successfully that they have essentially segregated the cannabis market from the other drug markets. What they'll also find from is that the use of other quote-unquote "harder" drugs is dramatically lower than it is in the United States. Their problem with HIV AIDS among drug users and with overdose fatalities and even with the overall number of people using these drugs is dramatically lower than it is in the United States.

Q: What would Schwarzenegger find in Europe that would argue against the legalization of drugs in the United States?

A: The evidence you have from Europe is mostly not about legalization. It's mostly about decriminalization. The Netherlands is the one exception, where cannabis can basically be bought and sold openly in regulated shops. He would find evidence that when you rolled back the criminal law you don't all of the sudden have an explosion in drug use; you don't have all sorts of other problems.

Q: In Europe are they taxing drugs like marijuana or he*oin the way we tax alcohol?

A: No. The closest is The Netherlands, where the government has found innovative ways to insure that the people involved in selling cannabis in the coffee shops do pay some taxes.

Q: Obviously, there are many people who disagree with you 180 degrees. What's the weakest part of your argument for legalization of drugs?

A: The area where the evidence is not conclusive and where people can legitimately disagree, is what would be the consequences if you actually made not just marijuana but a whole range of other drugs more legally available? That is what I would call the "$64,000 Question" in the drug legalization debate.

I believe -- as do millions of others, and not just libertarians -- that even if the drugs that are now illegal were to be made legal -- whether like alcohol or in some more restrictive way -- the increase in drug use would minimal, whereas the savings and the benefits in terms of the reduction of crime, violence, corruption and other things would be dramatic. But there are those people who believe that if we made these drugs legal you would see drug abuse increase tenfold. I'm convinced they are wrong, but I cannot prove they are wrong.

News Hawk- Ganjarden 420 MAGAZINE ® - Medical Marijuana Publication & Social Networking
Author: Bill Steigerwald
Contact: CITIZEN-TIMES.com
Copyright: 2009 CITIZEN-TIMES.com
Website: Ethan Nadelmann On Arnold's Brave Call For A Pot Debate
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