Former Princeton professor talks war on drugs

By Mia Ingui
Managing Assistant

A former Princeton University professor and founder of the Drug Policy Alliance shared with the campus community his most passionate belief: that imprisoning people based on their personal choice to use drugs is completely absurd.

Ethan Nadelmann was invited by TCNJ Political Union to speak unreservedly to the campus community on Wednesday, Sept. 28, during his presentation, titled “Alternatives to the War on Drugs.” He is a dedicated advocate for drug policy reform and is unsatisfied with the way drug use is approached in the U.S.

“All along, I thought the drug war was crazy, stupid, backwards you name it,” Nadelmann said. “I could talk forever about this.”

He opened a candid discussion on the drug war by posing the following question: “How many of you think we should legalize marijuana?” After a few sparse hands rose into the air, Nadelmann asked, “How many of you prefer not to say?”

Nadelmann told the audience that the drug war in the U.S. took off in the 1980s. He likened the issue of drug use back then to what the issue of terrorism has been since 9/11. Laws were passed that essentially made it so that selling even a small amount of a drug, such as heroin or cocaine, could result in a 10- to 15-year prison sentence.

Nadelmann addresses the Spiritual Center crowd. (Randell Carrido / Staff Photographer)
Nadelmann addresses the Spiritual Center crowd. (Randell Carrido / Staff Photographer)

“Nobody stopped to say, ‘Wait, what is it going to cost to keep locking people up?’” Nadelmann said. “All that mattered was that these people deserved to be punished and hurt.”

By the late 1980s, the drug war seemed to be out of control, with over 50,000 people behind bars for crimes related to drugs. Today, there are 2.3 million imprisoned for drug use. Twenty percent of the world’s incarceration population is held in the U.S., and Nadelmann couldn’t disagree more with the excess of arrests in the country.

“The view is this: we will create a drug-free society,” Nadelmann said. “And if we can’t, we have to get close to ridding our society of drugs, despite the billions of dollars it will take. That’s the way it’s going to be?”

Nadelmann said racism plays a big role in the drug war, and he believes people of color are blatantly targeted more so than white drug users.

“The war on drugs targets certain races,” Nadelmann said. “Ninety-five percent of those sent to prison for drug use in the ’90s were people of color, even if they were innocent.”

According to Nadelmann, people of color are two to 10 times more likely to be arrested than those who are not. This statistic infuriates him. As an advocate of “Black Lives Matter” and other movements for racial equality, he hopes justice will be served for those that have been wronged by the drug war.

“Part of my job that I love the most is the weaving of people all with different views,” Nadelmann said. “The one thing they have in common is that the drug war messed up something that they care about.”

Nadelmann outlined his ideal, objective drug policy.

“No. 1 would be to reduce the consequences of drug use, like addiction, death and disease,” Nadelmann said. “No. 2 is to reduce the harms of the government policy, like the mass incarcerations and the violation of human rights.”

There are ways in which this can be accomplished, according to Nadelmann. He believes society should adopt a less harsh approach, which would reduce the role of criminalization in drug control as much as possible while still protecting public health and putting U.S. resources toward helping people, rather than hurting them.

“I believe that nobody deserves to be punished or discriminated against solely upon what they put in their body,” Nadelmann said. “What you put in your body is your business. That’s the core principle — you should not be criminalized for who you are.”