Psychedelic Exceptionalism and the Drug Reform Debate

Episode 139

Ethan Nadelmann

Ethan Nadelmann is a legend of drug policy reform. From his time as a professor at Princeton to his founding and seventeen years of leadership at the Drug Policy Alliance, Ethan has spearheaded the critique against the War on Drugs. In this episode of the Third Wave podcast, Ethan talks with Paul F. Austin about the role psychedelics played in shaping his personal values and drug policy vision, how our culture’s perspective on drugs has shifted over the last 30 years, and how psychedelics fit into larger drug policy reform.

Ethan Nadelmann earned his BA, JD, and PhD from Harvard, plus an MA in international relations from the London School of Economics, which led him to teach politics and public affairs at Princeton University from 1987-1994. His speaking and writings on drug policy reform attracted international attention, ultimately prompting Ethan to found the Drug Policy Alliance in 2000 and act as its executive director for seventeen years. Rolling Stone has characterized Ethan as “the driving force for the legalization of marijuana in America,” and his writings have appeared in most major media outlets in the US as well as top academic journals, policy journals, and political publications. Most recently in his retirement, Ethan has started a podcast about all things drugs called PSYCHOACTIVE.

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Podcast Highlights

  • Nathan’s personal introduction to psychedelics and his calling to work on drug education.
  • How psychedelics have the power to confirm our life’s purpose.
  • How psychedelics help “normal” people feel “better than normal” and how this compares to other drugs.
  • How our culture has shifted its perspective on drugs over the last 30 years.
  • Why certain drugs are more stigmatized than others.
  • Disruptive nicotine technologies.
  • Cautioning against overestimating the mainstream’s acceptance of psychedelics.
  • Psychoactive reading recommendations.
  • Nathan’s experience working with a US State Department narcotics team.
  • Nathan’s take on how the psychedelic space will develop in the next ten years.
  • Is decriminalization the right approach?
  • Nathan’s new podcast PSYCHOACTIVE.

Podcast Transcript

0:00:00.2 Ethan Nadelmann: You know, and I was asked the question about psychedelic exceptionalism, and I made the point, look, in my own personal life, I am in marijuana and psychedelic exceptionlist. Those are the drugs that have a huge net plus for me, and I’ve tried many of the other ones, never had that much of a taste for them. And so, I do think that the benefit cost ratio with cannabis and psychedelics greatly exceeds the other ones, especially outside the medical context. Obviously, in the medical context, opioids have a huge role to play, and even the stimulants play some significant role, but that’s one. I think secondly, if you look at who these drugs are associated with it, right? And if one asks the question, why are some drugs legal and other ones illegal? Going back historically, the question has relatively little to do with the relative risk of these substances and much more to do with who uses and who is perceived to use these substances. So, in the late 19th century, 1870s, ’80s, ’90s, so long as opioids were used primarily by middle class white women…

0:01:09.8 Paul Austin: Welcome, to the Third Wave Podcast. I’m your host, Paul Austin, here to bring you cutting edge interviews with leading scientists, entrepreneurs, and medical professionals who are exploring how we can integrate psychedelics in an intentional and responsible way for both healing and transformation. It is my honor and privilege to bring you these episodes as you get deeper and deeper into why these medicines are so critical to the future of humanity. So let’s go and let’s see what we can explore and learn together in this incredibly important time.

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0:04:46.7 Paul Austin: Hey listeners, welcome back to the podcast. I’m your host, Paul Austin, today here with a legend of drug policy reforms, Ethan Nadelmann. Ethan has been described by Rolling Stone as the point man for drug policy reform efforts and the real drugs czar, and is widely regarded as the outstanding proponent of drug policy reform both in the United States and abroad, having founded the Drug Policy Alliance in 2000, and having acted as its Executive Director for 17 years. Ethan was born in New York City and received his BA, JD and PhD from Harvard, the trifecta, and a master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics, and he then taught politics and public affairs at Princeton University from 1987 to 1994, where his speaking and writings on drug policy attracted international attention. He has authored two books on the internationalization of criminal law enforcement, ‘Cops Across Borders‘ and ‘Policing the Globe,’ and his writings have appeared in most major media outlets in the US, as well as top academic journals, policy journals, and political publications. And most recently, in his retirement, Ethan has started a podcast about all things drugs called Psychoactive. Ethan, welcome to the podcast. It’s great to have you.

0:06:02.7 Ethan Nadelmann: Well, thank you, Paul. It was nice to chat with you at that psychedelics event in Miami in November, and so it’s nice to see you again.

0:06:11.3 Paul Austin: Yeah, it’s good to see you again. You know, I have been following your work since I started Third Wave six years ago, drug policy has always been, I think, a central element to everything that’s going on in the psychedelic space. We actually had Jag Davies on as an early, early podcast guest, I think in one of our first 10 episodes. So it’s an honor to have you here. And the question that I wanted to lead off with was specific to your own experiences with psychedelics, because one thing that I learned from your talk at the conference in Miami is, although you had been enacting the Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, really focusing on drug policy reform, on a personal level, your experiences with psychedelics, there’s some interesting interaction there with the more professional stuff, and I just wanna sort of route at least our initial conversation in some of your own personal experiences with these profound medicine. So what’s the origin story for you in terms of your relationship with psychedelics?

0:07:09.9 Ethan Nadelmann: Yeah, Paul. Well, I guess I first did… I had experience, with might have been LSD, when I was in college, and before I know it felt so speedy. I don’t know how much of the… I don’t know exactly what it was, but I began using mushrooms when I was about 23, 24. I was in graduate school, in law school at the time, at Harvard. I did them, I must have did them nine or 10 times, but then I didn’t do ’em for seven years during my 20s basically, and then really an experience that was very significant for me was in 1989, I’d been teaching at Princeton for a couple of years, including a drug policy class, at that point, a year earlier, all of a sudden… I had written a few articles and the drug war was going crazy, and all of a sudden, I get catapulted into these 15 minutes of fame kind of once or twice, you know, on all the major TV networks and magazines in the US and internationally really basically saying the drug war is a bust. It’s doing more harm than good. I’m not saying we should legalize everything, but we need to think seriously about this, so I was kind of really out there as a public figure while an assistant professor at Princeton in my early 30s, and one of my heroes was and is Andrew Weil, who wrote the book ‘The Natural Mind‘ and ‘Chocolate to Morphine,’ all these sorts of things.

0:08:36.4 Ethan Nadelmann: And I’d had him come to Princeton and talk to my class and give a talk. And then he reciprocated by inviting me out to the annual Telluride mushroom conference that he would do in Telluride, Colorado every year, and that’s a fascinating conference where part of it is to people who are traditionally interested in mycology, study of mushrooms, and other… But he always made sure to include people who’re interested in the more psychoactive elements, so it could be Rick Doblin, it could be Paul Stamets, it could be a whole Sasha Shulgin. And so he invited me in ’89 and we shared a stage and all this sort of stuff, and then on that Sunday, the conference was over, and Andy had given me some mushrooms actually, I guess I can say that 30 odd years later, that he was the source or else maybe you have to delete that, I don’t know.

0:09:26.7 Paul Austin: We’ll check with Andy about that. Yeah. [chuckle]

0:09:28.6 Ethan Nadelmann: Okay, in the playground of the Telluride High School with my wife at the time, I did the mushrooms for the first time in seven years, and my last experience had been one where I had found my, seven years earlier, I had found myself saying, muttering the words “conflict, conflict,” and I was in this period in my mid-20s, I didn’t know what I was gonna do, it was, I gonna go into academia and teach in a small college, or I was gonna have a more public life, was I gonna stay in the relationship I was with or leave that behind, was I gonna keep focusing on my area of study, which then was Middle East, probably called something else, and anyway, jump forward, it’s 1989 now seven years later in Telluride, the mushrooms start to come on strong, and I feel this like just going right back where I was, I’m on a conflict, I’m feeling this disease, and just picking right back up and sometimes what I would do when the mushroom would come on strong and I would feel the energy coming through and a little bit of nausea is if I was in outdoor space, I would just run…

0:10:25.2 Ethan Nadelmann: I would sort of get my blood going, I started running through the high school field. It was pretty empty that day, and the mushroom comes on fully, and I began this wonderful experience, and the highlight of it was that it was where it really… I wouldn’t say it was an epiphany, but it was a kind of crystallization where I realized that my mission in life, my calling was really to teach about drugs and the psychoactive drugs, and that it didn’t matter whether I stayed in a university or whether I headed or became an organization, got to politics or journalist, whatever, but this was gonna be my mission in life, and that doing so and teaching about drugs would also be a vehicle for speaking to broader values in our society, and it was a very grounding moment that happened to me right there, and I have to say, it was a real gift too, because I really never looked back.

0:11:20.1 Ethan Nadelmann: Some years later, I got a phone call out of the blue from George Soros and that caused me to leave Princeton and set up what became the Drug Policy Alliance. And it’s been an incredibly rich and rewarding life, so that was a really powerful… I could also say for me, mushrooms has been really the key one. I say I’ve had the most extraordinary culinary experience in my life, I’ve had some of the greatest insights in my life that have stuck with me about political theory and things like this. I’ve had… If not the most, one of the most extraordinary orgasms in my life. I’ve had the most… You know, the most amazing sunset of my life. I’ve had some of the great… So mushrooms, especially that period once after you’ve peaked and you’re beginning to come down, those have been magic moments. I’ve written letters in my head that the next day I’ve written to people which have really been powerful. So mushrooms has been big. I got stories with all the other ones too, with MDMA and ayahuasca and ketamine and this and that, so I’m happy to share away on those things, but I wanted to just give you that really, the one that was really, if not really life-changing, but life-confirming for me.

0:12:26.3 Paul Austin: What was it about those experiences that confirm for you that, hey, I am on this, the right path, so to say, in supporting drugs and psychoactive substances and reform and things like that?

0:12:38.9 Ethan Nadelmann: My blind spot in all the drug stuff has always been the sort of biology and chemistry of this stuff. So, from… In terms of what’s going on there, I read that stuff, I understand it a tiny bit, so I don’t really have an answer from that perspective, but speaking experientially in terms of what’s made the difference… I think there’s a few things about the psychedelics, one, of course, is the fact that they’re making connections in the brain, that… And then sometimes at a frequency and a variety that is just… It’s spectacular. It’s unlike anything else. Yes, I understand, and Andy Weil makes this point in ‘Natural Mind’ and others do as well, that any state of… Altered state of consciousness that one achieves with psychedelics or other psychoactive substances can also be achieved without those substances.

0:13:29.6 Ethan Nadelmann: Through meditation, through prayer, through fasting, through… You name it. But that psychoactive substances are the quick and easy way to attain those things, both for better and for worse. So we know they have these special properties, we know that’s been true in a great diversity of cultures around the world. I think secondly, I find that in terms of the insights, unlike with marijuana, you get high and you have these great ideas, but it’s typically the case that the next day, they don’t look all that special in the light of day, they tend to kind of poof away and not be what you thought they were.

0:14:02.9 Ethan Nadelmann: There are some exceptions to that, and oftentimes I find I don’t remember them as well. Some… “Oh, I had this amazing insight. What the hell was that?” But with psychedelics, and especially if I don’t end the experience by getting high… I think that may undermine it a bit, you know, with using marijuana. That I think that it stays vivid in that regard. It’s like when I think about… There was one experience I had, the first time I did Ayahuasca, and there was a relationship, it was actually evolved at one of my billionaire donors with whom I had a very kind of tumultuous relationship. And during that… I didn’t plan to have this experience. I wasn’t planning on thinking about him, but he’d been on my mind beforehand. And in the experience, I start almost kind of like reading him, communicating almost telepathically.

0:14:55.9 Ethan Nadelmann: And it’s like sensing him, this person and sensing his openness, his fears, his vulnerability, his desires, and drafting this letter to this guy I didn’t have a close personal, personal relationship with, but it was all about loving and letting go, and fathers and sons and all this sort of stuff. And not only did Ayahuasca lend itself to that, but the next day when I was on an airplane flying home from California to New York, I was able to… The letter I constructed him… To him, in my mind, under the influence of Ayahuasca… I was able to sit down and write it the next day, so there’s a vividness to the recollection into that experience, and then a point of fact, there was this weird moment when, in fact, he responded to the letter, which still only… Nobody had seen it except me, and somehow a few days later I hear from him, and him expressing his love for me… Words he had never used before.

0:15:46.7 Ethan Nadelmann: So there was almost a telepathic element to this communication. And I think Ayahuasca has got some of that reputation as well. So I think there’s something about the vividness of it, the intensity, I also think about mushrooms and some of these other substances, a little bit like… It almost feels like strapping a power pack onto my back, you imagine somebody’s coming, and then all the sudden they start flying with this power pack. And it can go in an intellectual direction, it can go in an emotional direction, in a spiritual direction, in a sexual direction… You can’t fully control it, you have to see where it’s going, but it’s this kind of amplification of whatever it might be that’s going on, and the power of what happens, whether it’s a sunset or an orgasm or a culinary experience or an idea or an insight, just has a resonance that… I don’t know, maybe it’s the same way that we remember some other incredibly profound experiences in our life that happened in a crisis or in a, I don’t know, celebratory, something like that, so that’s about the best I can do for an answer with that…

0:16:54.3 Paul Austin: Well, I think what you’re speaking to are almost like these peak emotional experiences and sometimes if… And these emotional experiences can be positive, they can also be traumatizing or negative, but there’s something that happens when you, for example, eat a mushroom or do Ayahuasca, where it’s so significant, there’s almost like an imprint on your psyche or an imprint on yourself where it’s… Something sticks.

0:17:13.5 Ethan Nadelmann: Right, but as I say, but Paul what I say is it’s not just emotional. It can be emotional, but as I say, it can also be intellectual, cerebral, it can be sexual, it can be spiritual… There’s something about the… The nice thing about marijuana is being an amplifier, if… It can improve… The way improves a sensory sensation and music and taste, and for me, the five senses. My aesthetic is the least developed, and so for me, there’s a big jump when I’m high in those sorts of things, but it’s modest in that regard. And what’s nice is it’s modest, which also means you can do it with some greater frequency than I would ever do psychedelics with. But with the psychedelics, it’s such an incredible enhancer and… That it just sort of catapults it into a kind of special league all by itself in a way.

0:18:08.7 Ethan Nadelmann: And then I think, obviously, I haven’t really done it in a therapeutic context, either informally or formally. But you can see why now, with all of this research coming out, it just makes sense that… I knew vaguely of this research back when I began doing the stuff in the ’80s, because I knew I had some idea of the research that had happened back in the ’60s and all this… Yeah, I guess, ’50s and ’60s, but you can sort of see why it has those added benefits for people who use this as a medicine. I don’t know if I would describe my use of it as a medicine, although definitely it was a way of enhancing… Sometimes healing, but more enhancing my life, an important way.

0:18:50.0 Paul Austin: Which seems to be common place. Michael Pollan calls it the betterment of well people. I know we have a lot of… Publicly, there’s… Most of the focus is on the clinical and medical side of things, but we also both know about the… Like you said, the life-enhancing qualities that these psychedelics can bring. And that people don’t need to benefit from them if they have depression or PTSD, it’s not explicit to that. People also like you and I can benefit.

0:19:15.0 Ethan Nadelmann: But what you’re saying with psychedelics is also true with many other drugs as well, right? Many drugs are first devised or discovered because they’re medicinal, they help people who are feeling badly feel normal, but those same substances can make normal people feel better than normal, right? And that’s also what carries some of the risk.

0:19:32.8 Ethan Nadelmann: Look at opioids, for example, they’ve been used for thousands and thousands of years for people dealing with pain, and they can also make… Enable people who aren’t feeling pain have an intensely pleasurable experience, which can either be done in a responsible way or can land up in an addictive relationship, and the same thing I think with the stimulants, cocaine, amphetamine. So in that respect, psychedelics are not exceptional in that regard, in terms of helping the ill feel normal and the normal feel better than normal, but they are to use the popular word, how exceptional in some other regards in terms of the diversity of the potential insights, although look, quite frankly, I think about it. If you look at my shelf and there’s a book called ‘Opium and the Romantic Imagination,’ about the famous writers in [Overlapping speech] for their writing, right?

0:20:24.0 Ethan Nadelmann: Exactly. And the same thing is true of cannabis. I know some of my… Some of those most brilliant friends I have, prominent academics or business people have come up with some of their best ideas when they were high, and we know that cocaine for some people is a wonderful stimulant, and even tobacco with nicotine in various forms can have those beneficial effects, so it’s all of these things that operate on us like that, helping sick people feel normal, normal people feel better, and then the question is, do we know how to use them responsibly and do we know both individually and societally how to maximize the benefits and to minimize the downsides.

0:21:01.9 Paul Austin: So in your previous story around mushrooms in the Telluride Festival, you had mentioned being a professor at Princeton in the late ’80s, early ’90s, starting to come out much more publicly against the drug war, even at that point in time, which was quite a step forward for being the late ’80s, early ’90s. In 2000, you started the Drug Policy Alliance and was the executive director of that for 17 years, and I’d love if you could just speak a little bit to how… From your perspective, how have we culturally shifted in terms of our perspective around drugs in the last 30 years.

0:21:41.1 Ethan Nadelmann: Well, really, first of all, with marijuana, that’s the remarkable evolution, right? When I was getting started, maybe, I think less than 30% of the American public… In the ’70s… I graduated college in ’79, so I was 22 then. So that was kind of live and let live era and in the ’70s, there were 11 states that decriminalized marijuana. President Jimmy Carter proposed a Federal decriminalization law. It was the moment when 35% of all Americans said we should legalize, I think, and over 50% of young people were favoring that. But in the ’80s, that was just kind of washed away, marijuana got caught up in the war on cocaine and the great big war on drugs led by Republicans, but very much bipartisan.

0:22:26.4 Ethan Nadelmann: So when I started speaking out in the late ’80s, beginning in ’87, ’88, it was like the drug war… I would describe it as McCarthyism on steroids. Just this incredible fanaticism, this fear about these aliens attacking us, drugs from abroad infecting our children, these monstrous fears, this notion we had to create a drug-free society, like a communist-free society and all this sort of stuff. And what you saw was that basically, I think barely 20% of the American public by the late ’80s favored legalizing marijuana. In the survey of college freshmen, support for legalizing marijuana had peaked at like 50% in the late ’70s, it was down to 16% by the late ’80s among young people, right? Young people became the kind of Reagan era, and nothing was legal anywhere.

0:23:17.5 Ethan Nadelmann: There had been a whole bunch of little medical marijuana laws that were passed, but there were sort of research studies that weren’t really implemented, and so then you fast forward now where 65% of American’s favored the legalization of marijuana, where even a majority of Republicans in some recent polls say they favor it, where you now have 18 or 19 states that have legalized marijuana and double that number that legalized medical marijuana, and it’s legal in some form or another, in all but four states in the US, that’s a monumental transition, and it’s happening not just in the US, right? You saw Uruguay followed Colorado and Washington. Colorado and Washington legalized in 2012, then Uruguay 2013, then Canada a few years ago, and now, you’re beginning to see Germany might do it in the next year or two, other parts of Europe, and even medical marijuana, not just in Europe, in the US, but throughout Latin America is happening. Even in Asia, even in the Philippines, where there’s a drug war, murderer, the President Duterte wants to execute people, tell cops to execute people involved in methamphetamine or Shabu, what they call methamphetamine. He’s pro-medical marijuana. Thailand is legalizing medical marijuana, other places.

0:24:30.0 Ethan Nadelmann: So we’ve seen a dramatic transition on the marijuana thing. The psychedelics thing, where I was less involved in advocacy on that front, in part because it didn’t play to the strengths of what Drug Policy Alliance was doing. In part because you had Rick Doblin and MAPS were out there, and then Hefter Society and a range of others, and that was more a research-driven thing, and there wasn’t that much opportunity to do things legislatively or through ballad initiatives, and so just the last couple of years, but there of course, was going on in the last few years, in part because of the work of MAPS and a range of other researchers. In part because of Michael Pollan‘s book being such a major crossover book, the media being so incredibly favorable these days, just being at that Wonderland Miami Business and Psychedelic Medicine Conference where you and I were Paul, in early November, and then just this past weekend at the Horizons Conference in New York, which I first spoke at in a little room in 2007, and now it’s this booming, busting out conference, it’s just extraordinary what’s going on there.

0:25:29.8 Ethan Nadelmann: If I look at the other areas that I worked on, one-third of our work was really about ending Marijuana prohibition, and that was the monumental success, the second third was about ending the role of the drug war and mass incarceration and doing all we could to reduce mass incarceration in the US, and there I said, we’ve had very substantial success in changing public opinion, and certainly, the numbers are coming down in the United States. I look at my state, New York or California or New Jersey. I mean, the percent of the prison population made up of drug law offenders has dropped dramatically.

0:26:02.2 Ethan Nadelmann: So we have seen some substantial progress on that front, but it’s still tough, because heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, these drugs are still so highly demonized and the people involved in them are stigmatized and… So that’s been tougher, and then in the last third of our work was really making a serious commitment to treating drug use and addiction as a health issue, not a criminal issue, advancing harm reduction in public health strategies, and there we were quite successful at expanding needle exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV and other infectious diseases and enhancing access to legal syringes, but it was sad how long it took and a few hundred thousand people in this country probably died because the US failed to implement the sorts of needle exchange and harm reduction policies that Europe and Australia were doing by the mid to late ’80s on things like overdose prevention. Drug Policy Alliance, really, we launched a big part of that effort 20 years ago, but it’s a total tragedy to see 100,000 people dying last year from an overdose fatality.

0:27:07.8 Ethan Nadelmann: So I was inspired to see Mayor de Blasio of New York, just to prove the opening legally of a safe injection site or what’s called… Some of these are called an Overdose Prevention Center in order to reduce overdose fatalities, but these things have existed in other countries for 20 years, and so we’re still so slow in that regard, so I felt like we made progress, but I was disappointed that we did not get further. So overall, I think we’ve made a lot of progress but… And the marijuana thing has gone further than I expected, psychedelics too, other areas, I wish we’d gone… We’d been able to be even more successful than we were.

0:27:44.6 Paul Austin: And why is it that you think there’s such a stigma around some of these… Let’s not worry about cannabis and psychedelics right now, ’cause we do talk a lot about that on the podcast, but specific to these other drugs that the Drug Policy Alliance was fighting for, why does such a stigma exist still around drug users or these different types of drugs?

0:28:06.4 Ethan Nadelmann: Well, I mean, there’s a few reasons. One, I think is just that when I spoke at the… Wonderland Miami Festival and I was asked the question about psychedelic exceptionalism, and I made the point, look, in my own personal life, I am a marijuana and psychedelic exceptionalist, those are the drugs that have a huge net plus for me, and I’ve tried many of the other ones, never had that much of a taste for them, and so I do think that the benefit cost ratio with cannabis and psychedelics greatly exceeds the other ones, especially outside the medical context.

0:28:37.4 Ethan Nadelmann: Obviously, in the medical context, opioids have a huge role to play, and even the stimulants play some significant role, but that’s one. I think secondly, if you look at who these drugs are associated with, right, if one asks the question, why are some drugs legal and other ones illegal, going back historically, the question has relatively little to do with the relative risk of these substances and much more to do with who uses and who is perceived to use these substances. So in the late 19th century, 1870s, 1890s, so long as opiates were used primarily by middle class white women, nobody thought to criminalize it because nobody wanted to put their aunty or grandma behind bars, but when it starts to be identified with the Chinese migrants coming to work on the railroads and the mines and elsewhere, and all the fears of these Chinese migrants and what are they gonna do, they’re creating these opium dens and they’re gonna give it to our precious white women and seduce them and turn them into sex slaves and all this sort of stuff…

0:29:46.3 Ethan Nadelmann: And you get the first cocaine, the first opiate prohibition laws in Nevada and California, and it’s all about the Yellow Peril, all about racist fears, and the same thing was true with cocaine. Cocaine was widely used. Coca-Cola had cocaine until late 1890s. And so far as we know, there was no bigger problem back then of addiction to Coca-Cola with cocaine than there is now with Coca-Cola with caffeine, but as it began to develop, people got into trouble with it, people began to do more injecting with it and as it became identifying the public imagination with black men, especially in the south, snorting this white powder, forgetting their proper place in society, and the fear was that’s when need to criminalize it. The fear of what would these black men do to our precious white women, they would be in… Even the rumor that went out, you can’t bring down a black man with a 38, you… You need a 45 to bring them down, and in New York Times, not just kind of the petty press, but the most established elite press and with marijuana, with marijuana, it was about, you know, Mexican migrants, Mexican Americans in the Southwest and Midwest, and the first Marijuana prohibition laws were in El Paso, Texas, and then in other cities and states in that part.

0:31:00.8 Ethan Nadelmann: So a lot of it had to do with the association… I came up with a line I used in my TED Talk, and I said, “Let’s put it this way, if smokable cocaine were used primarily by older white men and Viagra primarily by young black men, well, then the penalties for smokable cocaine would be fairly modest, and it would be decriminalized, and the penalties for Viagra might be five to 10 years behind bars for selling it.” I sort of highlighted it, but there’s some real truth to that, and the association of cocaine, especially crack cocaine with black people and the opiates, now as the association of opioids is now seen not just as a black inner city thing, but more broadly throughout our society, you also see the policy is getting quite a bit more sympathetic because… You look at the Republican primaries in 2016, all the Republican candidates, were feeling a need to sound a little softer and gentler about drugs, ’cause they were going into largely Republican communities where people were struggling with opioids, so a lot of it has to do with that.

0:32:16.5 Ethan Nadelmann: And the fact is, look, opioids, when combined with alcohol or with benzos in big amounts, it can stop your breathing, and now fentanyl, of course, is a nightmare drug, so there are legitimate fears about this stuff, but the way I see it… I don’t advocate for treating heroin and cocaine or methamphetamine legally the same as we do cannabis or alcohol, or maybe even psychedelics, but I do believe that nobody should be punished for what we put in our bodies if we don’t hurt anybody else, and that means that all of these drugs should be decriminalized, and in fact, legal to possess in small amounts for our own use, that just is a core human rights and public health principle, and I think a good public policy principle and the countries that have embraced that policy, whether it’s Portugal or others, I think have generally done a lot better on drug policy than we have.

0:33:13.8 Ethan Nadelmann: And I think, secondly, when it comes to the people who are committed to getting these drugs, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, you name it, and we know that throwing them in jail doesn’t accomplish much except take them out of the market for a little while, and then throw them back on the streets where they’re more susceptible to overdosing and getting back involved in criminality, you know, my view is that the obligation of the government should figure out the way in which people who want or need these substances and are gonna pursue them, whether they’re legal or illegal, they should figure out the way which those people can get these substances from a legal regulated source in such a way that it does not endanger the broader public health, broader welfare of the general population.

0:33:56.0 Paul Austin: And I think that’s something that we can all agree upon, that we’ve had this distinction in like a western industrial… Or from a western industrial perspective, that tobacco, alcohol, and coffee are legitimate or legal or acceptable, and those substances largely supported the growth of industrialism, and that all these other drugs, whether it’s psilocybin or cannabis or opiates or whatever it might be, are sort of deemed illegal or unacceptable, and I think what we’re also witness now is almost a shift where that’s getting turned on its head, where people are now realizing that alcohol, tobacco, and even legal opiates might be more dangerous than some of these previously illicit drugs, so there’s also… I think they’re just… There seems to be just more and more nuance that’s being brought to the conversation.

0:34:51.1 Ethan Nadelmann: There is, although remember also Paul, to some extent, that construct is sort of a 20th century construct, because in the 19th century, opiates and cocaine, these other things were in fact illegal in the US and many other countries around the world, and in the early ’20s, remember we had alcohol prohibition, that was a huge movement, it required a change in the Constitution, 18th amendment, and then it gets repealed 14 years later, and that experience of alcohol prohibition in the US was really the initial frame through which I looked at drug prohibition and the drug war. It was understanding that when you prohibit a substance that’s popularly desired, you can reduce the number of people using it and reduce some of the cumulative disease associated with it, but it comes at the cost of the growth of organized crime and violence and corruption, and black markets and overflowing jail cells and prison houses and court houses, and you name it.

0:35:45.9 Ethan Nadelmann: So that frame was there. I think the second thing I would say with you is I agree it is becoming more nuanced in some respects, but I have to say the issue that’s really fascinated me since I stopped running Drug Policy Alliance four years ago, and I’ve been following it before, but I’ve really become much more engaged is the fight over tobacco and nicotine and tobacco harm reduction, because my dad died at the age of 58 of a heart attack, his pack a day cigarette habit probably played a role in his dying at that young in age, but at the same time, what’s happened in the tobacco area of late, is these innovation of e-cigarettes, Juul, things like that, and other heat, not burn devices which are similar to e-cigarettes, but they use not a nicotine in a water, but instead, like the old packs, marijuana, things we heat the marijuana or heat the tobacco and just burn it.

0:36:39.9 Ethan Nadelmann: And also these things, Snus, and other things and other things you put in your mouth, and these things are extraordinary, they’re an extraordinary technological sort of breakthrough, a disruptive technology. I mean, put it this way, if one could snap your fingers and all of the 40 million Americans who smoke cigarettes today, 13% of the population, or all of the 1.2 or whatever billion people around the world who are smoking cigarettes, would… Suddenly switch to vaping e-cigarettes or these heat not burns or the Snus, it would be one of the greatest advances in public health in human history, because these substances are by and large, 90% to 99% less dangerous than smoke, combustible cigarettes, right?

0:37:27.0 Ethan Nadelmann: Yet what we see is more and more people proposing bans on e-cigarettes and tobacco harm reduction devices, people flipped out when kids started Juuling and doing all this sort of stuff, and they forget that these e-cigarettes are like a monumental harm reduction device. They are essentially saving lives as Clean Needles were to stopping the spread of HIV or making naloxone available to stopping overdoses. And so what I’m saying is just as we appear to be getting more enlightened about marijuana and psychedelics, and we’re even beginning to decriminalize possession of other drugs, at the same time we’re applying all those old fears and ignorances and bigotries and prejudices on this other drug. Now, if it’s cigarettes, that might be one thing up to a point, but we’re talking about nicotine. Here, you have a drug which causes people to become dependent, but it doesn’t cause cancer, it doesn’t kill you, doesn’t hurt you that much, but most Americans think that nicotine is what causes cancer. False. A majority of doctors believe that.

0:38:27.3 Ethan Nadelmann: False. You remember that thing a few years ago before the pandemic, this thing called EVALI where people were landing up in hospitals because they were vaping and they were getting this oil splatter in their lungs, it turned out that was all about tainted THC cartridges, had nothing to do with nicotine e-cigarettes, but most Americans in part ’cause they were deceived by the US Center for Disease Control, believe that it’s still about e-cigarettes. Most Americans in the latest polls believe that e-cigarettes are as or more dangerous than smoking cigarettes, when in fact, there’s a monumental difference in the relative health risk, so part of me begins to despair when I say God, I played a big role in helping to legalize marijuana and helping to decriminalize other drugs, and you think people get it to get harm reduction, and then I see the public and the politicians, and what’s even more galling is that it’s disproportionately liberal, progressive mind of politicians, the same people who are my allies in legalizing marijuana, and needle exchange, and overdose prevention who are leading the charge to ban flavored e-cigarettes and even other e-cigarettes and the whole thing.

0:39:31.9 Ethan Nadelmann: So as you can see, I get quite animated about this issue ’cause I just find it infuriating that once again, the science is being tossed out the window while the media, the politician, the publics do exactly what they did with the drug war and justifying all this craziness just as we did the drug war as one great big Child Protection Act. If we can keep a few people, kids from smoking weed, then let’s arrest so many thousand Americans a year. Let’s fill the prisons, let’s see people die of AIDS just to protect the kids, and we’re doing the same thing now in the tobacco nicotine issue, so part of my pitch to the world of drug policy reform is do not, just ’cause big tobacco is involved, fuck ’em. Yes, if they make money just like the narcos make money from drugs, but the bottomline is, there is a basic public health argument here. And there is science here, and we have to embrace that and not just follow the same bullshit that gave us the drug war in the ’70s, in the ’80s, in the ’90s.

0:40:32.2 Paul Austin: Right, ’cause I imagine the rationale behind that, just as I’m going through it, is e-cigs make smoking more enjoyable or less harsh, it makes it so that kids or whoever else will do it more often, but what I’m hearing from you is, even if that’s the case, let’s say, nicotine as a substance itself is actually not what creates the harm or the cancer, it’s the combustible smoke, so regardless, more people shifting to these…

0:41:00.0 Ethan Nadelmann: Exactly, Paul.

0:41:00.8 Paul Austin: Is actually going to significantly improve public health.

0:41:05.7 Ethan Nadelmann: I mean, Paul… Exactly, exactly. First of all, if you look close at the data, just about young people, what you see is that very few young people who start vaping without having smoked cigarettes in the first place, go on to become cigarette smokers, so we don’t see much of anything in the way of a gateway or stepping stone from people using… Doing e-cigarettes without ever having tried cigarettes, and then going on. Secondly, if you look at the people who are becoming addicted vapers, they’re disproportionately people who are already playing around with other tobacco products beforehand who may have been trying cigarettes and things like that.

0:41:42.7 Ethan Nadelmann: So that’s the second variable. The third thing is, no, we don’t want young people vaping or smoking or stuff like this, but when you look at the benefit to adults and even, look, even young smokers, one of the things that people present to is that the rate of smoking cigarettes among young people is dropping but when all of a sudden, the e-cigarettes became popular, that’s when you saw the greatest drop in adolescent smoking. So actually, the introduction of e-cigarettes actually helped to accelerate the reduction in smoking among young people, and then if you ask the question, so what happens if young people get addicted to vaping and they keep doing it for decades of their life, we don’t have 40-year longitudinal studies, but we know enough from the bio-markers and other evidence that the harms are probably gonna be modest, if that, whereas the benefits for an adult of switching from smoking to vaping or Snus, these other, oral forms, is monumental in terms of saving lives.

0:42:43.4 Ethan Nadelmann: And it’s not just me saying, this is National Academy of Science, this is the famous Cochrane report, which evaluates the data, even if you look at the small print for the Centers for Disease Control. You look at the top studies coming out of New England Journal of Medicine, you look at prominent deans of schools of public health, people get this, but unfortunately, you have a very well-funded tobacco and nicotine prohibitionist world, Michael Bloomberg, who did a huge amount of good in terms of trying to reduce smoking has now turned his attention to fighting vaping and putting out massive, inaccurate, dishonest propaganda, hundreds and millions of dollars in the US and around the world, and so people are just bought into this thing, so… I mean I could go on and on and on about this sort of stuff, but it is to drive home the point… It’s funny, when I saw when Matt Johnson, Johns Hopkins professor, just got the grant from National Institute on Drug Abuse to do this research on smoking cessation and using psilocybin.

0:43:44.1 Ethan Nadelmann: And I’m thinking that what the public doesn’t know is that probably the two best ways to quit smoking: A, the evidence is increasingly in about tobacco harm reduction, vaping, e-cigs, heat not burn devices like IQOS, Snus, what have you, that it works better than patches and gums and the pills and all that sort of stuff. But the public doesn’t know that. And then secondly, Matt devotes preliminary study, but there’s lots of reasons to believe that now this bigger study is doing with funding National Institute on Drug Abuse, may well show that that does more effective than anything at getting people to quit smoking. And so the two most promising interventions now to help reduce smoking among the 40 million Americans who are smoking are two areas tobacco, nicotine, the other one is psychedelics where the public remains massively ignorant and confused.

0:44:37.8 Paul Austin: And that seems to be changing on psychedelics. Right? That is my sense that…

0:44:41.9 Ethan Nadelmann: It does.

0:44:43.0 Paul Austin: We’re not at a majority yet, but with Oregon legalizing psilocybin with several major cities now de-criminalizing it, I would see that sort of public perspective shifting on at least the medical use of psychedelics, and let’s say the next three to five years, the vaping tobacco thing I think is another that’s much more difficult in terms of…

0:45:08.0 Ethan Nadelmann: Well, I tell you, I think you’re basically right about that, but on the other hand, I think we live in our world of psychedelics, and the Oregon initiative was inspiring, and we’ll see if that gets replicated in other states, and it’s obviously happening at the local level from Oakland and Denver to most recently, Detroit. But then a colleague of mine, a friend of mine, Catherine Tucker, who’s an attorney, who’s been involved in the issue of end-of-life care and psychedelics, and she was just… She just emailed me earlier today and she said she was at the American Bar Association’s Health Committee section, and she said not one of them were familiar of the role of psychedelics in dealing with mental health issues, and so we think it’s out there, and we see all the good media, and we see Michael Pollan‘s book was a key crossover book in all this stuff, but at the same time, there’s still massive ignorance about this, people just are not as plugged in.

0:46:01.3 Ethan Nadelmann: When we live in our world, we see all the evidence coming out, we know when the Times it’s the thing in a prominent magazine and Netflix does something, and major podcasts are doing things like this, but we should be wary of over-estimating it, and at the same time, there is going to be… Just wait, the media has been overwhelmingly positive, but the media always wants a new story, and when they get bored of the good news, the bad news comes up again, and then it’s gonna be… Matt Johnson gave a good talk at this in the Horizons Conference about what are all the things that could go wrong? And some of these things are inevitable, like the pendulum of media coverage, so we will see some pushing back, we will see some disappointments and some of the research study results, so I generally agree with you, it’s getting out there at a remarkable pace now, but we’re not, we got a long ways to go. And conversely, on tobacco harm reduction, you actually have the FDA basically giving a qualify green light to Snus, to the heat not burn devices, they just approved their first e-cigarette, Vuse, so the FDA is following the science…

0:47:10.7 Paul Austin: Oh that’s approved by the FDA, the Vuse.

0:47:15.0 Ethan Nadelmann: Kind of in a slow way. Yeah, no, they do. They approved one of the older e-cigarette things produced by one of the big tobacco companies called Vuse, V-U-S-E.

0:47:21.6 Paul Austin: My buddies use that. Yeah.

0:47:23.5 Ethan Nadelmann: An older version of it.

0:47:25.7 Paul Austin: I always borrow it from time to time, but we’re ahead of that by the way.

0:47:28.8 Ethan Nadelmann: There you go. So what’s happening and there’s a decent chance that Juul is gonna get approved, at least in a tobacco flavor, not the other flavors. And some of the other ones and join the others. It sounds like the science is so overwhelmingly on their side that the FDA is gonna have no choice but to approve them, so we now have this thing where politicians and for that matter, the federal government and especially the Center for Disease Control has actually been mis-educating the public, while the more scientific branch is kind of saying, “Hey guys, the evidence is in.” So I think the public is gonna be increasingly confused by all of this stuff, and we’ll see how it goes, but I do feel hopeful that the tobacco harm reduction stuff will gain ground, just like I’m helpful of the psychedelic stuff. My bigger concern is that we may be heading in the direction of prohibiting cigarettes, and as I say, I hate cigars, I’ve never smoked a whole cigarette in my life. The only time I’ve ever done it in that form is when I’d be with friends in Europe, in the US, who wanna mix hash or cannabis with tobacco and that’s the only way to…

0:48:35.0 Paul Austin: Spliff, called the spliff.

0:48:35.1 Ethan Nadelmann: Take it. A spliff or a blunt or… I actually… [chuckle] I got a spliff with Jamaicans, with pure marijuana, but whatever it was, going back to when I was young, I started college at McGill in Montreal back in ’75. For some reason, it was almost there was mostly hash around there. They were getting hash from Morocco and Afghanistan, instead of getting marijuana from the US, so I learned to do this early on. But I think that what’s gonna happen is I think we’re gonna see growing support for prohibiting cigarettes, and… Or stripping the nicotine in cigarettes were so low that a cigarette is no longer a cigarette anymore, and I think what people are not thinking through is, even though I hate cigarettes, and I wish nobody would smoke that when you start to ban something that millions of Americans still want, you’re inviting a whole new drug war with black markets, with drug testing, with new law enforcement agencies, with mass arrest, and probably having it disproportionately among young people of color who get into illicit drug markets, although this could play out in other ways as well.

0:49:43.7 Ethan Nadelmann: So for me, making sure that that core principle that nobody deserves to be punished for what we put in our body absent harm to others, and that secondly, the role of government should be to try to regulate as much of the psychoactive drug area as possible, and only retain the prohibitions at the edges, whether the drug is tobacco or cocaine or mescaline, I think that’s where we still have a long way to go for people really getting that.

0:50:12.9 Paul Austin: So I wanna spend the last half of our conversation talking about some vision stuff, we’ve started to… We’ve kind of pieced a little bit of it together, but I feel like with your role as executive director at DPA for 17 years, you were a core visionary and how all of this has rolled out with cannabis and with all the things that we talked about before, but before I kinda pop into that next element of a conversation, I just wanna ask a bit of a grounding question for our audience, ’cause I imagine, I imagine you’re quite a reader, just from your background, and from how…

0:50:43.7 Ethan Nadelmann: Well, especially since I stopped running DPA, now I have time to read books again and such.

0:50:49.4 Paul Austin: And I’m just curious, for you, what are your three most psychoactive books that you yourself have read, and that could either be they are psychoactive in reading them, or it just could be a great read about something psychoactive?

0:51:09.0 Ethan Nadelmann: Well, it’s funny, Paul, I don’t know if I’ve ever said this publicly, but I would say that what was really… Let me give you five books that I think…

0:51:25.7 Paul Austin: Give me as many as you want. Yeah, whatever you want.

0:51:27.5 Ethan Nadelmann: Okay. And they’re all, they’re all… They’re different types of psychoactivity, right? One, the first book, probably John Stuart Mills’ classic book ‘On Liberty,’ the famous British philosopher written in middle of 19th century, where he distinguishes between other regarding and self-regarding acts and where he makes the case that the role of the government is to intervene and use its regulatory and criminal powers in terms of other regarding acts where people may hurt other human beings, but where acts are purely self-regarding, that that is not the business of government.

0:52:01.4 Ethan Nadelmann: Maybe in a regulatory way, in a way of nudging them towards better behavior, but basically… And it was a kind of liberal libertarianism. It was a kind of progressive libertarianism seeing government is correctly playing a proper role in moving society in the right direction but stopping short of those sorts of prohibitions, and so that was a book… By the way, I should say also with each one of these five books, in each case, the experience wasn’t like I was thinking one way, and this book may be think the opposite, in each case, it was I was thinking… I had already been thinking in this way, and then I started reading the book and I go, I was thinking that, I was thinking that, and then the author takes it where I had not taken it. So they take in anything…

0:52:47.4 Paul Austin: Those are always the best books. Always the best books.

0:52:47.5 Ethan Nadelmann: That I had and develop. Exactly, exactly. Then the second book, which I read just as I was beginning to study the drug issue a little less than 40 years ago, was the Andrew Weil’s book ‘The Natural Mind‘ about why people use drugs and about healthy and unhealthy relationship with drugs. And that book, which is still in print, ‘The Natural Mind,’ it’s truly a classic, and that really helped me understand some basic ideas, once again, I was thinking that way, but Andy just developed in a more thorough way. The third book was a book by a fellow friend of my named, Stanton Peele called ‘The Meaning of Addiction,’ which I also read in the ’80s, and that was a book which basically challenged a lot of the conventional notions around addiction, I mean, he talked about how powerful the placebo factor is and about the ways in which how much of addiction actually exists in the mind and is self-fulfilling.

0:53:37.6 Ethan Nadelmann: He also wrote a book many years earlier called ‘Love and Addiction,’ making the analogies between relationships, healthy and unhealthy relationships with human beings, love or the opposite, as well as with drugs, and that really helped open up my understanding of the whole field of addiction and shape my thinking around that. The fourth book, I was going through a horrific back pain, and the book was actually recommended to me to by Andy Weil, and it’s a book called ‘Healing Back Pain‘ by a fellow named John Sarno, S-A-R-N-O, and I was going through actually a horrific pain, and I got CAT scans and diagnosed with herniated disk L4-L5, L5-S1. I was 48 hours away from surgery, and he says, “Don’t get the surgery. Read this book. Go see this doctor.”

0:54:24.6 Ethan Nadelmann: And I went to see Sarno and essentially his argument was that there is nothing wrong with the vast majority of people who have herniated disk or back pain or sciatica. There’s nothing physically wrong, that in fact something else is going on, not that you’re imagining it. There are real sources of the physical pain, but that those are sort of generated through your mind, and reading that book really transformed my understanding of the mind-body relationship, and interestingly, just a few months later, I did MDMA for the first time, and there was actually some kind of synergy between those two things. And the last book, which I haven’t really talked about publicly, is a book called… I think it’s called, is it ‘Taoist Secrets of Love‘ by Montak Chia.

0:55:13.7 Paul Austin: I didn’t know if you could say ‘The Multi-Orgasmic Man,’ that’s another good one by Montak Chia.

0:55:18.1 Ethan Nadelmann: Well, and before he wrote ‘Multi-Orgasmic Man,’ I think he did ‘Taoist Secrets of Love,’ so it’s actually written in a little more broken English and such, but that book about men and our leadership to orgasm and energy and all that, I mean, that book also did have a profound… And I read it not long after the Sarno thing, so they were really two transformative things in my understanding of the mind-body relationship. Yeah, and all… Maybe the John Stuart Mill one less so, but increasingly the last two, certainly highly psychoactive in terms of their impact on me.

0:55:48.8 Paul Austin: That’s a phenomenal list. The libertarian to Andrew Weil who was part of the ’60s and the Harvard crew and has been a foremost leader into the mind-body connection, just going into addiction itself, I know that’s a core element of even the drug war and why we need to treat it, not as a criminal issue, but as a public health issue, in terms of what is addiction and why does addiction come about, and then… What was the fourth one? Remind me of the fourth one.

0:56:19.0 Paul Austin: The forth one was… About ‘Healing Back Pain‘.

0:56:22.4 Ethan Nadelmann: The forth one was John Sarno book, “Healing Back Pain.” And I recommend anybody, anybody of your audience who is struggling with chronic back pain or even sometimes chronic pain in other parts of your body, read that book because if it doesn’t make sense to you, it will be an interesting read, but if it does, it can be life transformative and in a way… In a way, Paul, if you think about what they all have in common, I think in one degree or another, is that they’re all about the power of our mind and our consciousness over how we experience things, how we experience our drugs, Andy Weil, taken the… Timothy Leary kind of, I think first coins the term drug set in setting maybe there were people before him, and then Andy Weil develops in a natural mind, and then Norman Zinberg, the Harvard professor really does studies to back it up with evidence and that’s the fundamental notion, drugs and setting in the psychedelics field and a whole range of other fields.

0:57:16.9 Ethan Nadelmann: And in terms of understanding how drugs impact on us, but vis a vis addiction, Stanton Peele about how much of this is… Yes, there are chemical things happening in our brain with some substances and what they bind to and the receptors, etcetera, etcetera, but that when you actually look at drug use cross-culturally and cross-society… In society among different groups and all this, you understand how much power of our mind to set what we think these drugs are gonna do with what our surrounding, our group, our culture, our setting tells us about this drug use is gonna shape it, and then when it comes to issues around pain, there are very real sources of pain that are physiological, but you also have seen the powerful role of the mind in there, and also once again with our sexuality, what we believe about sexuality, how we experience it, both for men and for women and all others, but for men, especially, where we think of the orgasm in a kind of fairly narrow thing, and in fact, we know that there’s really something much more substantial there that one can learn from the tantric or Taoist way of thinking about that. Yeah, so they’re all about consciousness set and setting type things, I think.

0:58:21.6 Paul Austin: Now, I wanna continue on that thread, because earlier on, you mentioned when you were at Princeton, when you were starting to become interested in psychoactive substances, you said there was a core imprint or a core where they influence your values in the world, and I’d love for you to just expound on that a little bit more. Now that we’ve been talking for an hour and we’ve gone through some of your top five books, how has your relationship with psychoactives, psychedelics, the mind-body connection, even sexuality, influenced or confirmed the values that you hold on to or that you live by?

0:59:01.6 Ethan Nadelmann: Well, I don’t know if it was so much, it’s almost a little bit the other way around, in the sense, Paul, that… As I read deeply about psychoactive drugs, the history, the economics, the health, you have it, and mind you, also remember my beginnings of this issue when I was a graduate student, was about studying the internationalization of the drug war and… I actually got myself a security clearance, I worked at the state department’s narcotics bureau in the mid ’80s, I wrote a classified report on drug-related money laundering, I went around and traveled all around South America and Europe to 19 countries interviewing DEA and customs and FBI and foreign drug enforcement agents and prosecutors for CIA.

0:59:47.6 Paul Austin: Oh that’s amazing.

0:59:48.0 Ethan Nadelmann: And I wrote a book, and so I was really smack on the inside, and one of the things I realized was how profoundly ignorant all these people were in the government about the drug laws that they were enforcing, about the origins of these laws, about the nature of these drugs. In the end when I wrote my dissertation, a book, Cops Across Borders, late ’80s, early ’90s, I didn’t make my bigger arguments for drug policy reform, I leaned over backwards to say, how does the DEA operate internationally? How do they deal with corruption in Latin America? How do they deal with foreign law enforcement system? And they actually opened their doors to me, and I didn’t wanna burn them by…

1:00:24.3 Ethan Nadelmann: I wasn’t out there to write an exposé, but I came away knowing, “God, these people have no idea about the drugs themselves or the drug laws,” just profound ignorance. And so for me, as I study, you just… My values have always been kind of politically, what used to be called liberal now, progressive, but more a centrist. I’ve never been a hard left person, I’ve never… I’ve always been like, reason, has the way… Tolerance, these are the ultimate values, reason, science, tolerance, decency, fighting greed, capitalism is inevitable, but let’s figure out how we have a more humane form of capitalism, right?

1:01:07.1 Ethan Nadelmann: And so the way… What it did was, but at the same time in becoming an advocate, or even in my academic world, and as I began to write for broader audiences and popular publications, it was about… It wasn’t just about speaking to progressives or liberals, I had to speak across the spectrum, I had to be speaking to people who are right-wingers and conservatives, I had to speak to cops, I had to speak to politicians, I had to speak to Republicans, not just Democrats. I had to speak not just to people who had good experience with the drugs, but people who had terrible experiences with drugs. I had to speak to parents who have lost their children to drugs. I had to speak in countries that were being devastated by the drug war. I had to speak to people who’ve been traumatized one way away or another, and so that notion of learning how to communicate basic values across a wide spectrum of people, and part of it is part of the joys I found in communicating this stuff, like for example, the core ideas was that there’s never been a drug-free society, there’s never gonna be a drug-free society.

1:02:13.7 Ethan Nadelmann: Therefore our challenge is not how do we build a wall or a moat between those drugs and ourselves or those drugs and our children, the challenge is, how do we learn how to live with these substances so they cause the least possible harm and the greatest possible good. That was just a basic formulation or about 10, 15 years ago, I came up with another way of summing it, I would be speaking to an audience to say it was a broad-based drug policy reform audience and people coming from marijuana and psychedelics and racial justice and civil liberties and harm reduction, and the whole spectrum from around the world, and many of that would be in like this would be at the Bi-Annual Drug Policy Alliance Conferences. You’d have people sitting there, you’d have a 19-year-old kid with blond dreadlocks and hemp leaves in his hair, sitting next to another person embracing 30 years of recovery…

1:03:04.6 Ethan Nadelmann: But thinking the drug war was wrong, sitting next to somebody who had just gotten out of 20 years behind bars for selling drugs, sitting next to a cop who had been enforcing the drug laws for 20 years and now thought it was a waste, sitting next to a young woman doing needle exchange and now is next to a labor union organizer advocating for legalization of marijuana for more union jobs, sitting next to a libertarian, sitting next to a left wing communist or anarchist. And what do they all have in common? And what I would say is, who are we? Who are we? The drug policy reform movement? We’re the people who love drugs. We’re the people who hate drugs and we’re the people who don’t give a damn about drugs, but every one of us know the drug war is wrong, and so it was about finding these ways to weave this stuff together and about grounding things in real science…

1:03:51.7 Ethan Nadelmann: And in real sense of compassion and human rights. The mission statement of Drug Policy Alliance, which dates back 20 years, is about advocating for drug policies grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights. Or if I was speaking about core values, I would be speaking about freedom and liberty and compassion and responsibility. I would be going to right-wing audiences and just talking about if you really care about the government acting effectively and saving taxpayer dollars and respecting freedom. Well, then you can’t support the drug war, and then I would go into left-wing gatherings, progressive gatherings, and I would stand up on day two and I would castigate them. I would say to left-wing audiences, I’ve been here for two days and there are two words I have not heard mention on this stage in two days, and what are those? Liberty and freedom.

1:04:46.7 Ethan Nadelmann: And why are the left wingers in America abdicating their use of these terms intentionally handing two of the most core values of America over to the right-wing? Lunacy. So the thing about the drug stuff was kind of, it was in a way, drugs, especially going back to ’80s and ’90s, it was really speaking to people’s greatest fears that had become the new… As I said, the drug wars is new McCarthyism, it was how do you get… How do you hold people’s hand in order to get them to embrace a new way of thinking? How do you get around their defenses? How do you not trick people but work with people so that they can embrace the science, how do you communicate these basic ideas and that I think was… Ultimately, I believe in a society which fundamentally respects human rights, which…

1:05:44.8 Ethan Nadelmann: And which scares me so much what’s going on America now is obviously the compartmentalization and the polarization, all the sorts of things, and for which I hold the Trumpist’s Spirited America primarily responsible, but which I sometimes despair at the ways that many of my allies on the left seem to just be playing into their hands and mimicking some of the same tactics. So that’s how the drugs thing intersects with the value thing.

1:06:09.6 Paul Austin: I love it. You could just keep going and I would keep nodding my head and it’s fine. This is phenomenal. I’m mindful of time and wanna give… I do wanna give due time to talking a little bit about sort of vision, because I feel like, again, like I mentioned before, the work you did with Drug Policy Alliance, you set out a vision that was executed against… And with you at the helm for 17 years, that fundamentally shifted the landscape of not only American drug policy, but I would say international drug policy, and I’m really curious, even though you’re not at the helm any longer, you’re living a bit more of a quiet existence, hosting the podcast, etcetera, etcetera. You’re still present, you’re still engaged, you’re still listening, you’re still observing, and I’d be curious: One, because this podcast is more focused on psychedelics, what’s your sense of how the psychedelic space… How it will develop in the next 10 years, let’s say in the next decade? And how do you think that is overlapping or overlaps with the larger movement for drug policy that we’ve weaved into the conversation today?

1:07:12.8 Ethan Nadelmann: Yeah. Paul, it’s so hard to say. And I don’t know what I could offer that’s gonna be unique in this regard, ’cause I’m no expert in the psychedelics field, but having been following it since the 1980s, and I have been friends with Rick Davlin since 1988 or something like that, long, long time, probably before most of the people in psychedelics movement were even born and attending these gatherings. You’re right, attending these gatherings and all the stuff, it seems… I actually feel somewhat optimistic that the two sides of the thing that the medicalization side and the non-medicalized side are going to keep proceeding in tandem. I love the way, for example, that you have both the medical research moving forward, unfortunately, highly and overly dependent on private funding in part because the government will not provide that funding in part because that’s just the way that drug development works in the US, and significant parts of the world.

1:08:20.1 Ethan Nadelmann: But at the same time, seeing the decrim initiatives proceeding and seeing that Oregon model, which was its own sort of unique thing, I feel optimistic that these are going to keep proceeding in parallel and sometimes intersecting tracks. I see the for-profit guys and the broad criticism of the overreach on patents by a company like Compass or some others, where they’re trying to patent things that have already been more or less devised by others or that exist naturally by just making little permutations or working the total patent system and flooding with all of them, that kind of bullshit…

1:09:00.2 Paul Austin: Yeah, it’s a lot of ridiculous parasitic shit.

1:09:00.7 Ethan Nadelmann: People do when their… Yeah, and I understand they justify it, and it’s not an illegitimate argument that that gives them the opportunity to raise tens of millions of dollars which are necessary for research.

1:09:11.2 Ethan Nadelmann: At the same time, we’re gonna see some of these companies coming up with some novel compounds, right. Now, Sasha Shulgin was a friend of mine, I spent many hours at his home in Lafayette, California.

1:09:24.4 Paul Austin: Did you do any bio assays? Any bio assays with Sasha?

1:09:28.9 Ethan Nadelmann: What do you mean bio assays?

1:09:30.8 Paul Austin: Oh, when he would take drugs with a group of friends and kind of mark the different experiences and effects, you were a part of that… Okay.

1:09:36.0 Ethan Nadelmann: No, I was never a part of that group, but I will say that Sasha was generous. But the fact that he did it as a kind of pioneering spirit, and in a non-financial way, in his book, when he wrote ‘PiHKAL’ and ‘TiHKAL,’ those books, he really was seeing them as kind writing the underground Bible of psychedelic creation to be used and what his worry was gonna be the pharmacological kind of psychedelic dark ages that might lie ahead. Remember… I mean Sasha… I created a working group when I was at Princeton in 1990, the Princeton working group on the future of drug use and alternatives to drug prohibition, and Sasha Shulgin was part of it, and it was one of his first… I think it was the first time he was joining a real reformist kind of effort, and it was in part because he had been radicalized by the controlled substances analogue’s act, which really was about criminalizing the work that he had done for a long time.

1:10:38.0 Ethan Nadelmann: But I understand that to get these things legitimized, and look, part of legitimization also means making them… Providing safe, reliable, civilly liable sources for these drugs, so I understand the role of patents, and the need for patents in doing that. Now, the bigger issue, of course, is I think people are gonna keep finding and growing their own mushrooms irrespective, and if the price gets too high, there are gonna be people producing these things at lower prices in the black market and hopefully quality products. So I think there’s gonna be that valve when folks get too greedy, the bigger question I think will be issues like health insurance, because doing these things, if we’re wealthy, we can afford to buy what we wanna buy, but if these things do indeed turn out to have the value we expect them to have for vast numbers of human beings, they’re gonna do even more than oftentimes among people who don’t have much money, and where somebody needs to be paying for that and health insurance, either private or public, needs to be the answer.

1:11:46.7 Ethan Nadelmann: And I’m concerned when you look at what’s going on with ketamine now, insurance will… I think I have the facts here, right, they’ll cover esketamine, the patented version of Ketamine

1:11:56.7 Paul Austin: Spravato, ’cause it’s been FDA approved for depression or whatever…

1:12:00.7 Ethan Nadelmann: Exactly. But if you’re using the stuff that costs almost nothing, and many of the best therapists prefer to use that, that in fact it’s not covered, and that type of sickness in the system, so all well and good for esketamine but if that means that it’s cost a fortune and that poor people can’t have either the medication or even the treatment around it covered, that’s fundamentally wrong. It’s why I’m inspired by some of the people I met at the recent Horizons conference, in this organization called Anthea, other folks who are trying to basically begin to address this insurance issue upfront in a smart, intelligent way, so I think that’s gonna be a key issue about access to the variety of substances that work best for people. I worry also even in Nalaxone area to deal with the opioid overdose, there’s one version of it that’s been patented that’s a nasal inhaler, the easiest way to administer it.

1:12:51.9 Ethan Nadelmann: But in the end, this stuff can be administered in other ways and Naloxone doesn’t cost very much money, so the cost issue and accessibility issue are gonna be the really big ones. Overall, I’m incredibly inspired by… I do think the results are just gonna keep coming up, there’ll be some disappointments along the way, but psychedelic medicine is just gonna blossom, and was it Harvard, Yale, John’s Hopkins, University of California, but even a whole bunch of other universities around the United States, Imperial College in London, universities in Switzerland…

1:13:24.4 Paul Austin: NYU as well.

1:13:26.9 Ethan Nadelmann: And Canada. You just see this… NYU. NYU Langone. You see this proliferation of really prestigious institutions, you’re seeing Harvard Law School has a project now in psychedelics and the law, so there’s an incredible legitimization going on as a result of that. And I think that’s all good. And I remember there were people worried about the medicalization of marijuana when we launched the medical marijuana ballot initiatives in ’96 and such, and it’s… Yeah, okay. And it’s playing a big role in the psychedelics, but I don’t think we need to freak out as much about that, let’s take advantage of that stuff, let’s push for greater federal funding in this area, because one reason why the research is so dependent upon private funding is ’cause the feds weren’t provide any of this stuff, but I think we’re gonna retain the freedom to use these things, and I think as happened with marijuana, that the medicalization is gonna cause a lot more Americans to learn about the benefits of psychedelics.

1:14:25.1 Ethan Nadelmann: It’s gonna cause them to relax and to be more curious, it’s gonna result in de-stigmatization, so I think in many respects, the growth of the whole medicalization field is gonna reduce the stigma and the criminalization for people using these substances outside the medicalized field. So I’m generally an optimist, even though I know there’s gonna be bumps and the things are gonna go backwards here and there, there’s gonna be misuse, there’s gonna be reckless therapists, there’s gonna be people doing things stupidly, there’s gonna be the inevitable casualties. Those things will happen, but I think the thrust is overwhelmingly in a positive direction.

1:15:05.0 Paul Austin: And as last question to that. I’d be just curious to hear your thoughts on the decriminalized nature. You know, what’s happened in Oakland, Seattle, what’s happened in Detroit, Ann Arbor, a few other places. Do you feel like that is the correct approach? Do you feel like other drugs, hard drugs should also be looked at when it comes to decriminalization? Like how do you… Just what’s your sense of that strategic approach as it relates to psychedelics and wider drug policy?

1:15:35.2 Ethan Nadelmann: I mean basically, I’m in favor. I think actually, Oregon, it was beautiful what happened there in a way, because you have the planned medicine folks doing this path-breaking psychedelics, medicalization and decriminalization of psychedelics initiative. And meanwhile, my old organization, Drug Policy Alliance into the new leadership, doing the first all-drug decrim initiative, also in Oregon, same year, same ballot, basically trying to introduce the Portugal sort of model of which basically says, we’re not gonna put anybody in jail for using any substance so long as they’re not getting behind the wheel of a car or committing violent acts, and that even if people keep using drugs, we’re gonna offer them help, we’re gonna push them, nudge them to try to get help and all this sort of stuff, but we are not gonna be putting them in jail. And the fact that… And now you see in California, and I think Washington, Colorado, maybe Maine, other states, you see basically there are conversations going on once again to reproduce each of these initiatives in other states. Now, in theory, depending upon… Look, some states allow ballot initiatives that are limited to a single subject, so you can only put so much in it, others have less strict rules. But I see my role both historically and also now and in the future, as encouraging as much…

1:16:56.7 Ethan Nadelmann: Synergism between the two areas. I would like to see even more of the two areas, ’cause whenever you have two initiatives like in Oregon, each one of those initiative’s worried about the net potential negative impact of the other, and in fact, it didn’t play out that way, they both did very well, each of them got over 55% of the vote. So I think thinking about these things more in tandem, understanding the principle, there were times in the past when some of the folks working in the psychedelics research area were so psychedelics exceptionalists in their view, and so paranoid about psychedelics research having any connection to broader drug policy reform that they really kind of really ran for cover any time a broader drug policy reform discussion was underway. And it’s always meant a lot to me that Rick Doblin at MAPS, and MAPS the organization has been committed to psychedelics reform being part of the drug policy reform movement. Same thing is true of ICEERS, and their leader, Ben De Loenen, which puts on the World Ayahuasca Conference and is doing a lot of other work, also committed to work in that area, being part of the broader global drug policy reform movement. So to me, that pivotally needs to be part of the vision, and there may be little moments when you have to tactically distance yourself a bit in the psychedelics field, from the broader thing, but by and large, let’s understand…

1:18:24.6 Ethan Nadelmann: The analogy I sometimes make is that when it comes to the core principle, I may be a psychedelic exceptionalist in my own life, or a marijuana psychedelics exceptionalist, but the principle has to apply across all drugs in the same way that the First Amendment there, it’s crucial to protecting elevated speech, but it also needs to be out there to protect non-elevated speech, horrible speech, ugly speech, stupid speech up to the point where it actually crosses over into violence or incitement, because we need to protect the less elevated and the stuff that… Because first of all, we don’t know if it may turn out to be insightful and valuable in its own ways, but you need to be able to protect that, otherwise you risk losing the freedom on the broader thing, the more elevated stuff. And I think that’s the core principle there and I think the vision should be about, hey… I would love to see…

1:19:20.0 Ethan Nadelmann: And I hope this happens, that some of the people making money in the psychedelics area, I’m sure MAPS is committed to this through their public benefit corporation, but I’d like to see some of the individual donors making a commitment, not just to the psychedelics area, but to the broader decriminalization of all drugs, understanding that from not just a human rights, but from a public health and a good public policy perspective, it’s the right thing to do, and that psychedelics pulling away from those other drugs may serve certain advantages, but don’t forget that they were all criminalized, people were all being punished and stigmatized and demonized, we all came out of the same family of the stigmatized, demonized, criminalized drugs, and therefore, now that you’ve made it good, psychedelics, don’t turn your back on your siblings now, just because they are still in the stigmatized crowd or because they present greater risks or involved with a different population. That’s what I’d like to see. There are people like David Briner who has crossed over in both these areas, and there are a few others as well, but it needs to happen much more broadly.

1:20:24.7 Paul Austin: And you’ve changed… Just in having this conversation, you’ve opened up a new perspective. I think that that example that you drew around, hey, just like with the First Amendment, you have to protect elevated speech, but you have that to also protect not so elevated speech. I never thought about it from that perspective, and that makes total and complete sense, so I just appreciate you weaving that in because I’ve always been more of a psychedelic exceptionalist just myself, and that’s been also then somewhat the way I’ve communicated, and I think the way that you’ve contextualized it is so helpful to understand why it has to be a much bigger fight if we’re focused on psychoactive…

1:21:03.3 Ethan Nadelmann: Well, Paul, if you think about it… I say that if you look at the core First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, that’s part of what’s kept us honest and part of what’s been great about America for the last few hundred years, that we’ve respected and embraced that stuff and understood it doesn’t just apply to the forms of these things and that we prefer, but even to ones that we feel profoundly uncomfortable with or dislike or even hate. And if you think about those core freedoms, they all assume an underlying freedom, which is a freedom over consciousness, and to some extent, a freedom over consumption, what we consume, whether it’s ideas or religious beliefs or media, but it’s also about the substances we consume. And I think you don’t have those… All those four freedoms of the First Amendment don’t mean anything unless there’s that underlying freedom of consciousness and freedom of consumption. And I think that’s also where one brings in the psychoactive substances. Yes, some of these substances and particularly in certain forms present greater risks and greater downsides, but it’s all of a piece, it’s all of a piece. And we have to embrace that broader principle.

1:22:11.6 Paul Austin: I’m mindful of time, I know we have to wrap up. One last question and we’ll finalize it. I just would love to hear about Psychoactive, the new podcast that you’ve launched. I’m sure many of our listeners would be interested in tuning in. What is Psychoactive? And what are you most excited about with Psychoactive?

1:22:25.8 Ethan Nadelmann: Yeah, sure, Paul. When I stopped running Drug Policy Alliance four and a half years ago, my first idea was, do a podcast, right? You don’t have to be anywhere any time. It’s not like having a radio show or teaching a course. You can do it whenever, and it’s a way of reaching a larger public, which is important to me, but I… The right opportunity didn’t pop up, and I didn’t wanna work that hard when I stepped down. And then last year, I got an email from Darren Aronofsky, the movie director, who I know… I’ve known him a little bit for 20 years, he’d been a little bit involved with the Drug Policy Alliance, and he said, “Hey, you wanna do a podcast on psychedelics?” And I said, “No, I wanna do a podcast on all drugs.” He said, “Let’s do it.” So actually, one thing led to another, and he signed a contract with iHeart, which is the biggest platform in the world for podcasts, together with the Times and NPR. And so now, I’m working with Darren and his team and with iHeart. And so we have about… I think we’re approaching… Two dozen episodes have gone up so far, but it’s people who are…

1:23:30.9 Ethan Nadelmann: There are people like Andrew Weil or Michael Pollan, but then somebody who’s less known like Elias Dakwar, the Columbia professor, who’s been doing research on ketamine and treatment of addiction. But then I had Senator Schumer on talking about the marijuana bill in Congress, or I had Nora Volkow, the head of National Institute on Drug Abuse, and I gave her a bit of a hard time, but she was gracious enough to stick in there. I was surprised she even accepted. And then I’ve had people talking about the whole issue Purdue Pharma that Patrick Radden Keefe wrote the book about the Sackler family. But then also Kate Nicholson who started this amazing organization to advocate for people who are actually using pain medications responsibly, but landing up… The doctors won’t give it to them any more. And then I have other journalists and writers, and I have… People gotta listen to it. But it’s really the entire spectrum of issues. I hope to be doing one on Kratom soon, and I hope to be doing… I’ll probably do an issue on the placebo sometime soon. So it’s really about getting a wide variety of people, both famous and barely known, who have really interesting things to say about this. And since it’s inevitable that most of my guests will be people I already respect and agree with much more than not, I see my job as asking them the tough questions and pushing them.

1:24:53.1 Ethan Nadelmann: I had a guy, Clive Bates, he’s a British guy, who’s one of the world’s leading experts on tobacco harm reduction, and I’ve learned a lot from him. But what I did with him is I fired him every question that would come in from the other side. It’s like, let’s keep this stuff interesting. And because I’m essentially a contrarian by nature, and I like to argue and provoke, it’s been pretty easy to do and a lot of fun. So I’m having a great time. I’m not totally in control of it, ’cause it’s working with a lot of other people, and there’s a commercial aspect to it, so people have to plow through commercials to listen to it, which was not my first choice. But hopefully, there’s enough advertising coming into it that’ll be able to stay on for quite a few years to come, ’cause I’m loving doing it.

1:25:36.0 Paul Austin: Good. Well, amazing. Congratulations on launching it, and all the guests. I’ve read through… I need to listen to a few of the episodes myself. And I also wanna just thank you here for all the work that you’ve done with the Drug Policy Alliance, for all the work that you’ve done on drug policy reform, for all of the progress that you’ve helped to catalyze and facilitate. Your leadership has been, I think, instrumental in the development of this whole space, and it’s just been a real honor to interview you today, Ethan.

1:26:05.9 Ethan Nadelmann: Well, well, Paul, thank you so much. And listen, I really admire the work you’re doing in the microdosing and such. So, more power to you. I hope that keeps growing and becoming ever more successful. And I kind of kick myself ’cause I’ve never gotten serious about microdosing. I dabble in it, but I really have to give it a go sometime, so I’ll probably be calling you for a little more advice about that.

1:26:23.9 Paul Austin: Yeah, if you need any support, just let me know. I’m happy to help.

1:26:27.6 Ethan Nadelmann: Okay, man. Okay, Paul, take care.

1:26:48.9 Paul Austin: This conversation is bigger than you or me, so please leave a review or comment so others can find the podcast. This small action matters more than you know. You can find show notes and transcripts to this podcast on our blog at To get weekly updates from the leading edge of the psychedelic renaissance, you can sign up for our newsletter frequency at And you can also find us on Instagram at @thirdwaveishere or subscribe to our YouTube channel at

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