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Drug-policy reform 'point man' in Utah

He'll give talk on trying to end the war on drugs

The general leading the war against the "war on drugs" is in Utah, again spreading his message that it's time for this country to legalize what he mockingly calls the "forbidden fruit."

"Marijuana ultimately should be made legal," Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance, told the Deseret Morning News' editorial board Wednesday.

That's not to say Nadelmann, whose group is partially funded by anti-George W. Bush billionaire crusader/liberal philanthropist George Soros, envisions us living in a world where we could go to 7-Eleven and buy a 20-pack of joints or where doobie commercials air during the Super Bowl. Marijuana legalization would have its limits, including time-and-place matters that would be decided by local officials, if he got his way.

"Tax it, control it, regulate it," he said. "That's the direction where we need to head."

Nadelmann, sometimes called "the point man" for drug-policy reform, made the media rounds Wednesday along with being the keynote speaker for a Harm Reduction Project fund-raiser. He says current strict laws are akin to alcohol Prohibition and says his group is comparable, historically speaking, to where the movement for civil rights was in the 1940s, where the women's rights movement was in the 1890s and where the abolitionist movement was in the 1820s. "We see ourselves as the new political social justice movement on the block," he said.

Tonight he'll speak and answer audience questions at the University of Utah on "Building a Political Movement to End the War on Drugs." It's free, but seating is limited inside Mark H. Green Hall in the Francis Armstrong Madsen Building, 1655 E. Campus Center Drive (380 South).

Those hoping to hear a glowing endorsement of the country's drug policy might not want to go.

"What you have," he said, "is a growing consciousness in the public . . . that there's something fundamentally wrong, both in moral terms and in policy terms, with the status quo."

The Drug Policy Alliance, he says, is "the leading organization in the country of people who believe the war on drugs is doing more harm than good. . . . The war on drugs is an incredibly irrational policy that accomplishes no positive good in economic, in crime control, in any terms for America."

Nadelmann, a former Princeton professor who has three Harvard degrees, including a doctorate, firmly believes most drugs should be treated primarily as a health issue, not as a criminal justice issue. He touts the medicinal benefits of marijuana — and says science backs him up with data on its merits — and insists that busted drug abusers, even users, should receive treatment instead of being incarcerated. He also advocates asset forfeiture reform, objecting to the notion that confiscated drug money should go to police coffers.

Having marijuana in the free market — with potential advertising aimed at kids — is "the single most credible argument about legalization," Nadelmann said. But he calls the principal justification of the drug war — that of protecting children — a "sham" because teenagers have always had and will continue to have "the greatest access" to marijuana.

And he believes the government should focus more on pain-control issues where some doctors are afraid to administer adequate relief-providing drugs because of regulations. He also pointed out that 100,000-plus die a year to abuse and misuse of legal pharmaceutical drugs. Given the choice between being a passenger with a friend high on marijuana or with a buddy taking meds for being sick, he said, "I'm driving with my pothead friend any day over my friend who just took two cold pills."

As for public opinion on legalization, Nadelmann wrote in a National Review article this summer that public support for broader legalization ranges between 25 and 42 percent, depending on question phrasing, and said two of every five Americans, according to a Zogby poll, say "government should treat marijuana more or less the same way it treats alcohol," making it illegal only for children.

He says science, common sense and evidence "suggests we can safely move forward" with marijuana legalization. Then the government should consider allowing medicinal heroin for addicts, but he said "there are no great answers" concerning cocaine and methamphetamines.