<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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A Collective of Nationalist Movements

Ethan Nadelmann, in Mérida, Urges Decentralized Approach to Reform


By Andrea Daugirdas
Narco News Authentic Journalism Scholar

February 14, 2003

MÉRIDA, YUCATAN, FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2003: While anti-American sentiments escalate throughout the globe, Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann challenges the drug reform movement to rethink its strategy as one that not only has a greater understanding of, but also embraces, American ideals.


Ethan Nadelmann
Photo D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003

“In America, I am telling my allies this may be the time, more than ever before, when drug policy reform must show that it is fighting for the values of the United States, the positive values of the United States, not the bad ones they demand by the government in power today,” states Nadelmann. “Drug reform can only succeed in the United States if it is perceived – and if it is in fact consistent with – the fundamental ideals of my country, and of our constitution, and of our declaration of independence, and of what is best in my country.”

Although there is a growing transnational movement for drug policy reform, Nadelmann believes it cannot succeed as such, but rather as a collective of nationalist movements. Because a U.S.-led drug war emanates from the United States, he demands a more sophisticated look at what drives the War on Drugs with an American perspective.

During his address at the “Out from the Shadows: Ending Prohibition in the 21st Century” conference in Mérida, Mexico, Nadelmann indicated that a combination of the dominance of criminalization and the elevation of abstinence as an ideology drives the War on Drugs in the US. Although some of the most horrific crimes and tragedies of the US-led War on Drugs take place in Central and South America, Nadelmann emphasized the devastation within America. The sheer number of Americans locked up for breaking drug laws is higher than the total prison populations of Western Europe; drug testing for employment and in schools is on the rise, and increased power for police officers and prosecutors is precipitating civil rights abuses and corruption.

“We tell young people, that if they ever have been convicted of any drug offense, even the possession of a joint, they will no longer be eligible to get assistance from the government to go to university. If they committed murder or rape they’re still eligible.”

Rather than treatment or prevention programs, it is a problem to be solved by law enforcement, the military, prisons and prosecutors. The reasons for this, explains Nadelmann, is because in the United States, the belief in abstinence, in being “Drug Free,” is a quasi-religious imperative. Citing Prohibition, Nadelmann believes that there is something deep in American culture making the ideology of temperance incredibly powerful in the society.

“We often times put it on a pedestal higher than life itself. There is no other way to explain my government’s tolerance to allow a quarter-of-a-million Americans, 250,000 Americans, to become infected with HIV-AIDS, simply because the government could not intercept by providing clean needles to stop the epidemic.”

It is also why, Nadelmann believes, the US appoints former police chiefs, former generals, professional moralists or right-wing ideologues as drug czars – directors of national drug policy.

Debunking the widespread accusation that economic benefits are primarily behind what’s driving the drug war was another important component in Nadelmann’s analysis. Although he grants some economic forces, such as prison guard unions, prison-building corporations and politicians interested in having job-generating prisons in their district, he contends that fundamentally, the War on Drugs is in opposition to the economic and strategic interests of the United States.

“Why does the United States benefit from having a billion-dollar-a-year black market economy in Colombia that provides funds for the FARC, and for the paramilitary, and other people who create disruption and who attack oil pipelines?” asked Nadelmann.

Returning to the example of Prohibition, it was members of the American business community that was the most powerful force in ending alcohol prohibition because they realized it was not good for American business – they had to pay more taxes to enforce laws that could not be enforced, and were deprived of the opportunity of building legitimate businesses. Nadelmann believes that the same is true today, but most businessmen still fear to speak out.

A greater understanding of these components of the drug war is what the reform movement needs to form the alliances necessary to move forward. But these alliances go beyond the worlds of economics, politics or institutions. “Human beings should not be punished, should not be discriminated against, should not be discriminated among, based upon what they choose to put into their bodies. I think that is the fundamental, underlying principal that unites all of us.” The core values of individual responsibility, compassion for those who suffer and struggle, and freedom are fundamentally what comprise the fight against prohibition.

“Building alliances across borders, and building alliances from the left to the right, and building alliances between workers and businessmen, and building alliances between health and law enforcement. It must be a matter of building alliances between all people who see that prohibition is fundamentally a destructive element in all our societies, and who perceive that the risks of legalization do not approach in magnitude the horrors generated by prohibition today and in the future.”

Full Disclosure: The author wishes to acknowledge the material assistance, encouragement, and guidance, of The Narco News Bulletin, The Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, publisher Al Giordano and the rest of the faculty, and of the Tides Foundation. Narco News is a co-sponsor and funder of the international drug legalization summit, “OUT FROM THE SHADOWS: Ending Prohibition in the 21st Century,” in Mérida, Yucatán, and is wholly responsible for the School of Authentic Journalism whose philosophy and methodology were employed in the creation of this report. The writing, the opinions expressed, and the conclusions reached, if any, are solely those of the author.

Apertura total: El autor desea reconocer la asistencia material, el ánimo y la guía de The Narco News Bulletin, La Escuela de Narco News de Periodismo Auténtico, su Director General Al Giordano y el resto del profesorado, y de la Fundación Tides. Narco News es copatrocinador y financiador del encuentro internacional sobre legalización de las drogas “Saliendo de las sombras: terminando con la prohibición a las drogas en el siglo XXI” en Mérida, Yucatán, y es completamente responsable por la Escuela de Periodismo Auténtico, cuya filosofía y metodología fueron empleadas en la elaboración de esta nota. La escritura, las opiniones expresadas y las conclusiones alcanzadas, si las hay, son de exclusiva responsabilidad del autor

Abertura Total: O autor deseja reconhecer o material de apoio, o propósito e o guia do Boletim Narco News. a Escola de Jornalismo Autêntico, o editor Al Giordano, o restante de professores e a Fundaçáo Tides. Narco News é co-patrocinador e financiador do encontro sobre a legalizaçao das drogas Saindo das Sombras: terminando com a proibiçao das drogas no século XXI em Mérida, Yucatan, e é completamente responsável pela Escola de Jornalismo Autêntico, cuja filosofia e metodologia foram implantadas na elaboraçao desta reportagem. O texto, as opinioes expressadas e as conclusoes alcançadas, se houver, sao de responsabilidade do autor.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America