Why Ethan Nadelmann Has Unfinished Business With Drugs

    Ethan Nadelmann founded—and for decades ran—the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), and is without question one of the most significant figures in the history of drug policy reform. Beyond helping to drive state-level marijuana legalization to the point where it took on seemingly unstoppable momentum, he and his organization won victories for harm reduction interventions and pioneered reforms to drug sentencing laws across the United States. He has been a major participant in international drug policy conversations since at least the publication of his 1993 book, Cops Across Borders: The Internationalization of US Criminal Law Enforcement. Rolling Stone once referred to him as “the real drug czar.”

    I didn’t meet Nadelmann in person until after he retired from DPA, in 2017. I was a staff writer at VICE, focused on drug policy, and we had been tasked with drumming up some new beats. I had become consumed with the potential of vaping to replace deadly combustible cigarettes. Nadelmann, while enjoying his newfound leisure, seemed to be delving into the issue as well.

    The conversation we began over coffee seems to have lasted ever since—not just about vaping, but about the delicate and precarious politics around illicit substances, about America’s entrenched puritanical belief system, about how far we have come and how far we have left to go. No one has taught me more about drugs.

    Nadelmann is a gifted orator. His father was a rabbi, and you can hear the influence in his circumlocution, in his rapid-fire connections and insights. After he starts talking, it often comes as a surprise when he stops. His deep knowledge and curiosity reflect his past career in academia; he holds a law degree and doctorate from Harvard, and he taught public affairs and politics at Princeton before building DPA from the ground up. It was always unlikely that someone with that energy would stay retired for long.

    “I told him I didn’t want to do a podcast on psychedelics. I wanted to do one on all drugs.”

    Now, he has teamed up with iHeartMedia as well as the film director Darren Aronofsky and his production company, Protozoa Pictures, to create a podcast that is sure to make waves. Hosted by Nadelmann, Psychoactive will explore our society’s relationship with drugs—through conversations with an array of scientists, politicians, activists and celebrities about everything from the psychedelic movement to ketamine research to pain management.

    They started pre-recording episodes in March, and the plan, Nadelmann said, is to do 40 episodes in a season. The first guests will include, among others, Patrick Radden Keefe, a New Yorker staff writer and the author of Empire of Pain; Juan Manuel Santos, the ex-president of Colombia; Dr. Andrew Weil, the acclaimed drug researcher and expert in integrative medicine; Dan Savage, the prolific sex columnist; Kate Nicholson, the founder of the National Pain Advocacy Center; Melissa Moore, DPA’s New York state director; and Patt Denning, co-founder of the Harm Reduction Therapy Center in San Francisco.

    Psychoactive premieres on Thursday, July 15. You can check out the trailer here. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


    Alex Norcia: How did this all get going?

    Ethan Nadelmann: I always thought after I stopped running DPA that I’d start a podcast somewhere down the line. I did a little research, and I talked to some people. In part, I liked the flexibility of the schedule, and in part I like talking to people who I find really interesting. When I ended up retiring from DPA, though, I realized how free of responsibility I wanted to be for a while. I remained an advisor to my successor at DPA, and I got involved in the tobacco harm reduction debate. I gave the occasional speech. That was about it.

    And then last spring, I got an email from Darren Aronofsky. I met him 15 years ago. We had been introduced by a common friend, Ganga White, who happened to introduce both of us to ayahuasca. We would run into each other every once in a while after that, but we didn’t have much contact.

    But he asked me, in that email, if I wanted to do a podcast on psychedelics. And I told him I didn’t want to do a podcast on psychedelics. I wanted to do one on all drugs. His production company, Protozoa, wanted to get into podcasting. Long story short, he said yes.


    How will you address the issue that in doing a podcast on all drugs, many listeners can be siloed with their own concerns? I’m thinking, for instance, of the tobacco harm reduction community, which encapsulates a fair number of people who might not be otherwise interested in harm reduction. And many of the most vocal are libertarians or otherwise not politically aligned with the wider harm reduction movement.

    There are certainly those differences. The harm reduction world is mostly left-leaning and generally anti-big business. So there is a healthy skepticism of capitalism and multinational corporations. The second element is that racial justice looms very large in harm reduction. With tobacco harm reduction so far, it seems to be more squarely about class.

    Because I’m so interested in THR, though, I’m not only going to be looking to speak to people in the tobacco field. I also want to raise that issue in other interviews. For example, I bring it up at the end of my interview with Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA]. Patt Denning also told me about her personal experience with THR.

    “When I was running DPA, I was so busy that I basically stopped reading books. Now I have time to do much deeper immersions.”

    The same will be true with the issue of pain management. Those are two subjects that I’m really interested in. There’s a community of people who are hungry for more information about tobacco harm reduction, and I think the same is true in the pain management area. Those are topics that might surprise people from the broader drug policy reform world. I’ll probably do an episode on the placebo effect, too.

    But to really answer your question, whenever I used to give my speech at DPA’s biennial conference, one of things I would say is, “Listen, I know some of you are here because you’re interested primarily in marijuana, or psychedelics, or racial justice, or the international drug war, but make an effort to approach people in other subjects.” I hope people will tune in because they have a growing fascination with psychoactive drugs in general.


    What distinguishes Psychoactive from any other podcast about drugs?

    As I mentioned, it’s going to be one of the only shows out there that covers the breadth of drug issues. The mystery now will be if there is an audience for people who want to hear about tobacco harm reduction one day and the drug war in Colombia, or what’s happening in Congress, or what’s the plight of pain patients on another. I think that there will be.

    I’ve been interested not just in drug policy, but in drugs ever since I got started. Part of it was personal, and part of it was intellectual. In my earlier years in academia, I did this kind of deep reading throughout. Meaning, I stayed up to date with the literature. But at DPA, I had to get more focused on policy, on the fundraising, on the politics. I had to build an organization from just me to 75 people.

    For me, the podcast is an opportunity to engage with drugs not as an activist or an organization builder, but really go back to my origins, when I had more time to pursue my intellectual interest in drugs. It’s going back to my roots, in a way. I can be more of an observer. When I was running DPA, I was so busy that I basically stopped reading books. Now I have time to do much deeper immersions into different issues each week.


    How do you keep it from becoming an agreement-fest? It seems to me a lot of your guests will be people who, even if you don’t agree with them about everything, are very much on your side.

    Juxtapose my interview with Patrick Radden Keefe, for example, with the one I did with Kate Nicholson. She advocates for those struggling with chronic pain, including those who are using opioids for long-term treatment in a responsible and constructive way. You have a situation where many physicians won’t take them on as patients if they know they’re using opioids, or be wary of that. There’s the risk of the pendulum potentially swinging too far the other way. There was an over-aggression in the promotion of opioids, but now we have doctors failing to see the benefit.

    Keefe expressed concern about this and mentioned the correspondence he received from people saying this very thing—that his book could make it that much harder for them to receive the pain medication that they need. He obviously doesn’t want to do that.

    With Clive Bates [a noted tobacco harm reduction expert], he’s somebody I agree with so much. I saw my interview with him as an opportunity to throw at him all the questions that a THR critic might put forward.


    So you’re saying it is pretty holistic?

    It’s a very diverse set of guests. Some of them I know, and some of them I don’t know. When I’m interviewing somebody like James Forman [a professor of law at Yale and the author of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America], I’m doing so as somebody who has been involved in the drug war for the past 30 or 40 years. When I’m interviewing somebody like Patrick Radden Keefe, and he’s talking about the Sackler family, I’ve met some of those people he’s discussing. Andy Weil is somebody I go back personally with since 1987; he played an important personal role in my life.

    “Maybe Nora Volkow is looking to reposition.”

    Because of my decades-long experience, I have a deep understanding of drugs and what’s at stake. But I also know about the politics and, probably more importantly, the individuals who have been in this world. There’s a personal engagement on my part. I’m looking to have a deeply engaged conversation, and I want to raise questions that my guests will not have heard on other podcasts or in other interviews.


    Who’s the person so far who you’re most surprised agreed to be interviewed?

    Nora Volkow. I was happy and appreciative that she accepted. I’ve been very critical of her and NIDA in the past. In our interview, I think I asked her a lot of tough questions. I’m asking her why NIDA funds what it does. Why is she spending so much money funding the sort of studies that say addiction is a brain disease rather than focusing on other priorities? And what exactly has come out of that? Why does she only look at problematic drug use and not unproblematic drug use? Why isn’t NIDA funding more psychedelic research? I pressed her, I believe, in a way that no one has ever pressed her in a public forum.

    My sense was that she had avoided engaging with me in the past, when I was in charge of DPA. But now one reason, perhaps, is that the policies have changed. The context has shifted. The Biden administration has a harm reduction message. The issues of race and justice with drugs are front and center. Maybe she’s looking to reposition. She had just written an op-ed piece where she endorsed decriminalization, although in a fairly conservative definition of it.


    What’s the ultimate goal of the podcast?

    Obviously it’d be nice to get a big audience. But what I’m most hoping is to hear from people. We’re going to have an “800” number you can call. If people get in touch and tell me that I really got them thinking. Or maybe they’ll identify something they learned. Managing, say, their pain, or helping in their relationships with drugs. Meaning that what they hear me or a guest say has a tangible benefit to their lives or their loved ones’ lives. 

    Not just touched or moved or engaged—that it really helped.



    Graphic courtesy of iHeartMedia

    DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to suppport a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

    • Alex was formerly Filter’s news editor. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at VICE, and has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Los Angeles Times and the New Republic, among other outlets. He was also previously a freelance editorial consultant for the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World; The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. He is currently based in Los Angeles.

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