English-Video.net comment policy

The comment field is common to all languages

Let's write in your language and use "Google Translate" together

Please refer to informative community guidelines on TED.com

TEDGlobal 2014

Ethan Nadelmann: Why we need to end the War on Drugs

Filmed
Views 1,622,023

Is the War on Drugs doing more harm than good? In a bold talk, drug policy reformist Ethan Nadelmann makes an impassioned plea to end the "backward, heartless, disastrous" movement to stamp out the drug trade. He gives two big reasons we should focus on intelligent regulation instead.

- Drug policy reformer
Ethan Nadelmann has ushered the once-marginal issue of drug legalization onto the center stage of US political debate. Full bio

What has the War on Drugs
done to the world?
00:12
Look at the murder and mayhem in Mexico,
00:17
Central America, so many
other parts of the planet,
00:19
the global black market estimated
00:23
at 300 billion dollars a year,
00:24
prisons packed in the
United States and elsewhere,
00:27
police and military drawn
into an unwinnable war
00:31
that violates basic rights,
and ordinary citizens
00:33
just hope they don't get
caught in the crossfire,
00:36
and meanwhile, more people using
00:39
more drugs than ever.
00:42
It's my country's history
with alcohol prohibition
00:44
and Al Capone, times 50.
00:46
Which is why it's
particularly galling to me
00:49
as an American that we've
been the driving force
00:53
behind this global drug war.
00:56
Ask why so many countries criminalize
00:58
drugs they'd never heard of,
01:00
why the U.N. drug treaties emphasize
01:02
criminalization over health,
01:05
even why most of the money worldwide
01:07
for dealing with drug abuse goes not
01:10
to helping agencies but those that punish,
01:11
and you'll find the good old U.S. of A.
01:14
Why did we do this?
01:17
Some people, especially in Latin America,
01:20
think it's not really about drugs.
01:23
It's just a subterfuge for advancing
01:25
the realpolitik interests of the U.S.
01:27
But by and large, that's not it.
01:30
We don't want gangsters and guerrillas
01:33
funded with illegal drug money
01:36
terrorizing and taking over other nations.
01:38
No, the fact is, America really is crazy
01:41
when it comes to drugs.
01:46
I mean, don't forget, we're
the ones who thought
01:48
that we could prohibit alcohol.
01:50
So think about our global drug war
01:52
not as any sort of rational policy,
01:54
but as the international projection
01:57
of a domestic psychosis.
01:59
(Applause)
02:03
But here's the good news.
02:06
Now it's the Russians leading
the Drug War and not us.
02:08
Most politicians in my country
02:11
want to roll back the Drug War now,
02:12
put fewer people behind bars, not more,
02:14
and I'm proud to say as an American
02:17
that we now lead the world
02:19
in reforming marijuana policies.
02:21
It's now legal for medical purposes
02:23
in almost half our 50 states,
02:25
millions of people can
purchase their marijuana,
02:27
their medicine, in government-
licensed dispensaries,
02:29
and over half my fellow
citizens now say it's time
02:32
to legally regulate and tax marijuana
02:35
more or less like alcohol.
02:37
That's what Colorado and
Washington are doing,
02:39
and Uruguay, and others
are sure to follow.
02:41
So that's what I do:
02:45
work to end the Drug War.
02:48
I think it all started growing up
02:52
in a fairly religious, moral family,
02:54
eldest son of a rabbi,
02:57
going off to university where I
02:59
smoked some marijuana
03:01
and I liked it. (Laughter)
03:04
And I liked drinking too, but it was obvious
03:07
that alcohol was really the
more dangerous of the two,
03:09
but my friends and I could get busted
03:12
for smoking a joint.
03:13
Now, that hypocrisy kept bugging me,
03:15
so I wrote my Ph.D dissertation
on international drug control.
03:17
I talked my way into the State Department.
03:20
I got a security clearance.
03:23
I interviewed hundreds of DEA
and other law enforcement agents
03:24
all around Europe and the Americas,
03:27
and I'd ask them,
03:29
"What do you think the answer is?"
03:30
Well, in Latin America, they'd say to me,
03:33
"You can't really cut off the supply.
03:36
The answer lies back in the U.S.,
03:39
in cutting off the demand."
03:40
So then I go back home and I talk to people
03:42
involved in anti-drug efforts there, and they'd say,
03:45
"You know, Ethan, you can't
really cut off the demand.
03:47
The answer lies over there.
You've got to cut off the supply."
03:50
Then I'd go and talk
to the guys in customs
03:53
trying to stop drugs at the borders,
03:56
and they'd say, "You're
not going to stop it here.
03:58
The answer lies over there,
04:02
in cutting off supply and demand."
04:03
And it hit me:
04:06
Everybody involved in this
04:08
thought the answer lay in that area
04:10
about which they knew the least.
04:13
So that's when I started
reading everything I could
04:16
about psychoactive drugs:
the history, the science,
04:18
the politics, all of it,
04:21
and the more one read,
04:23
the more it hit you how a thoughtful,
04:26
enlightened, intelligent
approach took you over here,
04:28
whereas the politics and laws of my country
04:32
were taking you over here.
04:34
And that disparity struck me as this incredible
04:36
intellectual and moral puzzle.
04:40
There's probably never been
04:46
a drug-free society.
04:48
Virtually every society
04:51
has ingested psychoactive substances
04:52
to deal with pain, increase
our energy, socialize,
04:55
even commune with God.
04:58
Our desire to alter our consciousness
05:01
may be as fundamental as our desires
05:03
for food, companionship and sex.
05:06
So our true challenge
05:10
is to learn how to live with drugs
05:12
so they cause the least possible harm
05:15
and in some cases the
greatest possible benefit.
05:17
I'll tell you something else I learned,
05:22
that the reason some drugs
are legal and others not
05:24
has almost nothing to do
with science or health
05:27
or the relative risk of drugs,
05:30
and almost everything to do with who uses
05:31
and who is perceived
to use particular drugs.
05:34
In the late 19th century,
05:37
when most of the drugs that
are now illegal were legal,
05:39
the principal consumers
of opiates in my country
05:42
and others were middle-aged white women,
05:45
using them to alleviate aches and pains
05:49
when few other analgesics were available.
05:51
And nobody thought about
criminalizing it back then
05:54
because nobody wanted to
put Grandma behind bars.
05:56
But when hundreds of thousands of Chinese
05:59
started showing up in my country,
06:02
working hard on the railroads and the mines
06:03
and then kicking back in the evening
06:06
just like they had in the old country
06:08
with a few puffs on that opium pipe,
06:09
that's when you saw the
first drug prohibition laws
06:12
in California and Nevada,
06:14
driven by racist fears of Chinese
06:16
transforming white women
06:18
into opium-addicted sex slaves.
06:20
The first cocaine prohibition
laws, similarly prompted
06:23
by racist fears of black men
sniffing that white powder
06:26
and forgetting their proper place
06:30
in Southern society.
06:32
And the first marijuana prohibition laws,
06:34
all about fears of Mexican migrants
06:35
in the West and the Southwest.
06:38
And what was true in my country,
06:41
is true in so many others as well,
06:44
with both the origins of these laws
06:47
and their implementation.
06:49
Put it this way,
06:52
and I exaggerate only slightly:
06:54
If the principal smokers of cocaine
06:57
were affluent older white men
07:00
and the principal consumers of Viagra
07:02
were poor young black men,
07:05
then smokable cocaine would be easy to
get with a prescription from your doctor
07:07
and selling Viagra would get you
five to 10 years behind bars.
07:10
(Applause)
07:13
I used to be a professor teaching about this.
07:17
Now I'm an activist, a human rights activist,
07:21
and what drives me is my shame
07:24
at living in an otherwise great nation
07:27
that has less than five percent
of the world's population
07:29
but almost 25 percent of the
world's incarcerated population.
07:32
It's the people I meet
who have lost someone
07:36
they love to drug-related
violence or prison
07:38
or overdose or AIDS
07:40
because our drug policies emphasize
07:42
criminalization over health.
07:44
It's good people who have lost their jobs,
07:46
their homes, their freedom,
even their children
07:49
to the state, not because they hurt anyone
07:53
but solely because they chose to use one drug
07:56
instead of another.
08:00
So is legalization the answer?
08:03
On that, I'm torn:
08:07
three days a week I think yes,
three days a week I think no,
08:09
and on Sundays I'm agnostic.
08:12
But since today is Tuesday,
08:14
let me just say that legally
regulating and taxing
08:17
most of the drugs that
are now criminalized
08:22
would radically reduce
the crime, violence,
08:24
corruption and black markets,
08:26
and the problems of adulterated
and unregulated drugs,
08:28
and improve public safety,
08:31
and allow taxpayer resources to be developed
08:33
to more useful purposes.
08:35
I mean, look, the markets
in marijuana, cocaine,
08:37
heroin and methamphetamine
08:41
are global commodities markets
08:43
just like the global markets
in alcohol, tobacco,
08:46
coffee, sugar, and so many other things.
08:49
Where there is a demand,
08:52
there will be a supply.
08:54
Knock out one source and another
08:57
inevitably emerges.
08:59
People tend to think of prohibition
09:01
as the ultimate form of regulation
09:03
when in fact it represents
the abdication of regulation
09:06
with criminals filling the void.
09:10
Which is why putting criminal laws and police
09:14
front and center in trying to control
09:16
a dynamic global commodities market
09:19
is a recipe for disaster.
09:22
And what we really need to do
09:25
is to bring the underground drug markets
09:27
as much as possible aboveground
09:30
and regulate them as
intelligently as we can
09:33
to minimize both the harms of drugs
09:37
and the harms of prohibitionist policies.
09:39
Now, with marijuana, that obviously means
09:43
legally regulating and
taxing it like alcohol.
09:46
The benefits of doing so are
enormous, the risks minimal.
09:49
Will more people use marijuana?
09:52
Maybe, but it's not
going to be young people,
09:55
because it's not going to
be legalized for them,
09:59
and quite frankly, they already have
10:01
the best access to marijuana.
10:03
I think it's going to be older people.
10:05
It's going to be people in their 40s and 60s
10:07
and 80s who find they prefer a little marijuana
10:09
to that drink in the evening or the sleeping pill
10:13
or that it helps with
their arthritis or diabetes
10:16
or maybe helps spice up a
long-term marriage. (Laughter)
10:20
And that just might be a
net public health benefit.
10:25
As for the other drugs,
10:28
look at Portugal, where
nobody goes to jail
10:31
for possessing drugs,
10:33
and the government's made
a serious commitment
10:35
to treating addiction as a health issue.
10:36
Look at Switzerland,
Germany, the Netherlands,
10:39
Denmark, England, where people who have
10:40
been addicted to heroin for many years
10:42
and repeatedly tried to quit and failed
10:44
can get pharmaceutical
heroin and helping services
10:47
in medical clinics, and
the results are in:
10:49
Illegal drug abuse and disease
10:53
and overdoses and crime
and arrests all go down,
10:56
health and well-being improve,
11:00
taxpayers benefit,
11:02
and many drug users even
put their addictions behind them.
11:04
Look at New Zealand, which
recently enacted a law
11:08
allowing certain recreational
drugs to be sold legally
11:11
provided their safety had been established.
11:14
Look here in Brazil, and some other countries,
11:17
where a remarkable psychoactive substance,
11:19
ayahuasca, can be legally
bought and consumed
11:22
provided it's done so
within a religious context.
11:26
Look in Bolivia and Peru,
11:29
where all sorts of products
made from the coca leaf,
11:31
the source of cocaine,
11:33
are sold legally over the counter
11:35
with no apparent harm to people's public health.
11:37
I mean, don't forget, Coca-Cola
had cocaine in it until 1900,
11:40
and so far as we know was no more addictive
11:44
than Coca-Cola is today.
11:46
Conversely, think about cigarettes:
11:50
Nothing can both hook you
and kill you like cigarettes.
11:53
When researchers ask heroin addicts
11:58
what's the toughest drug to
quit, most say cigarettes.
12:01
Yet in my country and many others,
12:04
half of all the people who
were ever addicted
12:07
to cigarettes have quit
12:09
without anyone being
arrested or put in jail
12:11
or sent to a "treatment program"
12:14
by a prosecutor or a judge.
12:17
What did it were higher taxes
12:18
and time and place
restrictions on sale and use
12:22
and effective anti-smoking campaigns.
12:25
Now, could we reduce smoking even more
12:28
by making it totally illegal? Probably.
12:32
But just imagine the drug war nightmare
12:37
that would result.
12:40
So the challenges we face today
12:43
are twofold.
12:45
The first is the policy challenge
12:47
of designing and implementing alternatives
12:50
to ineffective prohibitionist policies,
12:54
even as we need to get
better at regulating
12:56
and living with the drugs
that are now legal.
13:00
But the second challenge is tougher,
13:04
because it's about us.
13:07
The obstacles to reform
lie not just out there
13:11
in the power of the
prison industrial complex
13:14
or other vested interests
that want to keep things
13:16
the way they are,
13:18
but within each and every one of us.
13:20
It's our fears and our lack of knowledge
13:24
and imagination that stands
in the way of real reform.
13:28
And ultimately, I think that
boils down to the kids,
13:34
and to every parent's desire
to put our baby in a bubble,
13:39
and the fear that somehow
drugs will pierce that bubble
13:43
and put our young ones at risk.
13:46
In fact, sometimes it
seems like the entire
13:48
War on Drugs gets justified
13:50
as one great big child protection act,
13:52
which any young person
can tell you it's not.
13:56
So here's what I say to teenagers.
14:00
First, don't do drugs.
14:04
Second, don't do drugs.
14:07
Third, if you do do drugs,
14:11
there's some things I want you to know,
14:15
because my bottom line as your parent is,
14:17
come home safely at the end of the night
14:21
and grow up and lead a
healthy and good adulthood.
14:24
That's my drug education
mantra: Safety first.
14:28
So this is what I've dedicated my life to,
14:33
to building an organization and a movement
14:37
of people who believe we
need to turn our backs
14:39
on the failed prohibitions of the past
14:42
and embrace new drug
policies grounded in science,
14:44
compassion, health and human rights,
14:47
where people who come from
across the political spectrum
14:50
and every other spectrum as well,
14:53
where people who love our drugs,
14:55
people who hate drugs,
14:56
and people who don't give
a damn about drugs,
14:58
but every one of us believes
that this War on Drugs,
15:00
this backward, heartless,
disastrous War on Drugs,
15:03
has got to end.
15:08
Thank you.
15:11
(Applause)
15:13
Thank you. Thank you.
15:27
Chris Anderson: Ethan,
15:29
congrats — quite the reaction.
15:32
That was a powerful talk.
15:35
Not quite a complete standing O, though,
15:38
and I'm guessing that some people here
15:41
and maybe a few watching online,
15:43
maybe someone knows a teenager or a friend
15:45
or whatever who got sick,
15:49
maybe died from some drug overdose.
15:51
I'm sure you've had these
people approach you before.
15:54
What do you say to them?
15:56
Ethan Nadelmann: Chris, the most
amazing thing that's happened of late
15:58
is that I've met a growing number of people
16:00
who have actually
lost a sibling or a child
16:03
to a drug overdose,
16:05
and 10 years ago, those
people just wanted to say,
16:07
let's line up all the drug
dealers and shoot them
16:09
and that will solve it.
16:11
And what they've come to understand
16:12
is that the Drug War did
nothing to protect their kids.
16:13
If anything, it made it more likely
16:16
that those kids were put at risk.
16:18
And so they're now becoming part of this
16:20
drug policy reform movement.
16:22
There's other people who have kids,
16:23
one's addicted to alcohol, the other
one's addicted to cocaine or heroin,
16:25
and they ask themselves the question:
16:29
Why does this kid get to
take one step at a time
16:30
and try to get better
16:32
and that one's got to deal with jail
16:34
and police and criminals all the time?
16:35
So everybody's understanding,
16:37
the Drug War's not protecting anybody.
16:39
CA: Certainly in the U.S.,
you've got political gridlock
16:41
on most issues.
16:43
Is there any realistic chance of anything
16:45
actually shifting on this
issue in the next five years?
16:47
EN: I'd say it's quite remarkable.
I'm getting all these calls
16:50
from journalists now who are saying to me,
16:52
"Ethan, it seems like the only two issues
16:54
advancing politically in America right now
16:56
are marijuana law reform and gay marriage.
16:58
What are you doing right?"
17:01
And then you're looking at
bipartisanship breaking out
17:03
with, actually, Republicans in the Congress
17:05
and state legislatures
allowing bills to be enacted
17:07
with majority Democratic support,
17:11
so we've gone from being sort of the third rail,
17:13
the most fearful issue of American politics,
17:15
to becoming one of the most successful.
17:17
CA: Ethan, thank you so much for coming to TEDGlobal.
EN: Chris, thanks so much.
17:20
CA: Thank you.
EN: Thank you. (Applause)
17:22

▲Back to top

About the speaker:

Ethan Nadelmann - Drug policy reformer
Ethan Nadelmann has ushered the once-marginal issue of drug legalization onto the center stage of US political debate.

Why you should listen
Once derided as the province of spaced-out collegiate activists, the fight to reform marijuana and other drug laws is becoming increasingly mainstream in the US -- thanks in large part to the Drug Policy Alliance and its founder, Ethan Nadelmann.

Nadelmann believes that America (and the world) is losing the war on drugs, with disastrous implications for marginalized communities, exploding prison populations, and law enforcement in general. His arguments have converted politicians and policy-makers on both sides of the aisle. And the debate is shifting, with US states such as Colorado legalizing marjuana for recreational use, and countries such as Uruguay taking similar steps.
More profile about the speaker
Ethan Nadelmann | Speaker | TED.com