A conversation with the Drug Policy Alliance on March 11, 2014

Meeting Overview

On March 11, 2014, consultant Hilda Vega of the Headwaters Group and advisor Matt Stoller conducted a site visit with the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) at their national office in New York on behalf of Good Ventures. The purpose of the visit was to have a conversation with Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann to better understand DPA’s:

Others present in the meeting were Clovis Thorn, DPA’s Managing Director of Development, and David Glowka, DPA’s Deputy Director of Development. The meeting lasted just over two hours.

Conversation Summary

History and Context

To begin the meeting, Nadelmann provided a brief history of the scope and evolution of DPA’s role in the drug policy reform field. This included his assessment of the context in which he began his early work in the 1980s, a context which he characterized as being fanatical and contrary to fundamental American values. At this point in time, marijuana got caught up in the drug hysteria right along with cocaine and similar ‘hard’ drugs.

Indeed, there had been some ‘prehistory’ to this setting, in which the Ford Foundation did progressive work in this area and even Jimmy Carter supported harm reduction-type policies. But, ultimately, the debate became one of total legalization versus total prohibition. There was little to no room for the perspective of addressing the consequences of failed prohibition. The perception was that one was either for the drug war or for legalization, with little to no recognition of the spectrum of drug policy options available.

Harm reduction had emerged as a strategy in Europe in the 70s and caught on elsewhere in the 80s in response to the spread of HIV among people who inject drugs. There were some ideas formulated around how to maximize models that offered controlled alternatives for drug use while still monitoring possible harm to others, but the models did not catch on.

In 1994, George Soros invited Nadelmann to create The Lindesmith Center as the first U.S. project of the Open Society Institute (now called the Open Society Foundations). Nadelmann took on four major responsibilities:

In 2000, the Lindesmith Center spun off from the Open Society Institute and merged with the Drug Policy Foundation to form the Drug Policy Alliance. DPA scaled back its work on ballot initiatives but increased its investments in legislative advocacy campaigns, mostly at the state level. It also began to host the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, an event previously organized annually by the Drug Policy Foundation. Eventually, DPA began managing the grants program that was run through the Drug Policy Foundation and later through the Tides Foundation. 

The Field

According to Nadelmann, what we have now in the broad movement are four types of reform groups:

  1. State-level groups. These are issue-based groups or ones that target broad reform. Nadelmann believes this sector is growing.
  2. Constituency-based groups. This group includes: Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), Religious Leaders for a More Just and Compassionate Drug Policy, the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative (no longer active), Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), various parents’ movements (such as Moms United), and efforts within the African American community (including the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference).
  3. Issue-based groups. Including: National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML—representing the marijuana consumer), Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), Americans for Safe Access (ASA), National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC), North American Syringe Exchange Network (NASEN), Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), and the Heffter Research Institute. 
  4. Connect-the-dots groups. This sector includes two small groups such as Common Sense for Drug Policy and DRC-Net, and also DPA. 

There is also an international movement. We did not focus on this in the conversation, but Nadelmann felt it was important to recognize this work. One of the principal goals of DPA is to educate Americans about effective, proven policies and innovations abroad in drug policy reform which we do not typically talk about in the U.S.

Nadelmann believes that support in the U.S. for drug courts and other coercive approaches to drug use and addiction are driven in part by a general unawareness of the success of non-coercive approaches abroad, notably in Portugal and other European countries. He makes the point that non-coercive approaches are proven to be as, or more, effective than coercive approaches in reducing drug-related harms. He believes it is not just good policy but a moral imperative in an open society to embrace non-coercive approaches over coercive ones.  

In terms of the differences in approach to marijuana reform and legalization of more addictive drugs, DPA falls on the side of shifting resources from punitive to helpful polices that are health-driven. This includes leveraging the Affordable Care Act and other public resources. 

DPA Priorities

After the overview of the field, we turned back to DPA’s mission and priorities over the next decade. The mission is two-fold: to reduce prohibition and to reduce the harms of drug use. To that end, DPA’s four main priorities are:

  1. Remove Marijuana from the Criminal Justice System. In this area, Nadelmann said, “We keep the ball moving down the field.” DPA does not advocate for one model of legalization over another, but Nadelmann noted that he would rather not see the ‘Budweiserization’ of marijuana as an outcome of legalization. DPA wants to get marijuana out of the criminal justice system as much as possible and minimize the negative consequences of its use. Thus, its role in this space varies according to the need. In some cases, DPA primarily provides funding (which is what occurred in Washington); while in other cases it works on “the ground game” and on legislation (as it did in Colorado). In yet other scenarios (like in Uruguay), it has a staff person on site working on public education and the coordination of local groups.
    • On exceptionalism for marijuana, Nadelmann noted that DPA tries to make the most of it to advance legalization while at the same time minimizing the negative consequences for other drug policy reforms and looking for synergy. As an example, DPA regularly encourages other marijuana activists to refrain from demonizing and stigmatizing users of other drugs. Nadelmann emphasized that marijuana reform and other areas have generally moved forward in the U.S. and in foreign countries on parallel tracks. He makes clear that there is no “slippery slope” from marijuana legalization to the legalization of other drugs.
  2. End the Criminalization of Drug Possession. According to Nadelmann, we need to stop arresting and incarcerating people for drug possession while making significant investments in treating drug addiction as a health issue. He believes that the Portugal model[1] is the basic idea. While Nadelmann points out that legislative reform is necessary to reduce and ultimately end the criminalization of drug possession, he points to the LEAD model (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) as the closest thing to the Portugal model in the U.S. LEAD was pioneered in Seattle, and now DPA is deeply involved in adapting it in Santa Fe and in a number of other jurisdictions across the country. Nadelmann says that the movement to end criminalization of possession will take a much different approach than the marijuana movement, with much greater reliance on mobilizing public health officials and winning over law enforcement officials.
  3. Allow legal access to drugs for people who are unable or unwilling to stop their drug use.  Nadelmann sees this as the single most important design challenge for the drug policy reform movement over the coming generation. This work centers on a small group of users that drives the black market. This is where criminal organizations make their money, so Nadelmann believes we need to design models for people who are addicted to drugs so they can obtain drugs legally and in a way that does not endanger health and public safety. He noted that we need to take European models like heroin maintenance and figure out how to scale and reach more people without making programs so broad that others are in danger. As he stated, “we need to get innovative with how we deal with stimulants.” For DPA, this is not a legislative effort but rather a matter of turning this work into a research study (which is legal under federal law) and finding courageous, tenured researchers and treatment professionals who want to run it.
    • With heroin, Nadelmann felt that there was less of a backlash reaction to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death (despite the rapid response police raid targeting the alleged dealers in this case) than we saw regarding Len Bias’ death in 1986. The policy reactions today are less about 'getting tough' and more about Good Samaritan laws to make overdose deaths less common. For DPA, one core organizational commitment is to advocate for overdose prevention.
  4. End mass incarceration in the United States. This is DPA’s major priority, advanced by the first three. Drug policy reform, as DPA pursues it, will significantly reduce the number of people behind bars in the United States. Nadelmann wants to see U.S. incarceration rates to be similar to those in other democratic societies, to “make America average again.”

In the end, Nadelmann summarized DPA’s work as “intending to reduce the role of criminalization and the criminal justice system to the maximum extent consistent with health and public safety.”  

Peter Lewis

We then turned to talk about the impact of the passing of Peter Lewis. To this, Nadelmann responded that Lewis’ funding had been pivotal for the field, but it is hard to know what Lewis’ children will decide to do regarding future funding for drug policy reform.

On whether industry could fill the gap left by Lewis, Nadelmann noted that industry stakeholders have so far invested very little in reform, with the notable exception of Richard Lee, the driver of California’s 2010 legalization initiative. He anticipates that once marijuana is legalized, industry players will lobby to advance their financial interests, which may have the silver lining of funding advocacy efforts to ensure that marijuana is not recriminalized.

Nadelmann described the growing challenges and opportunities of working with industry stakeholders. He noted that they range from those who are personally very committed apart from their own financial interests, to those who are just looking to make a quick buck. The key for DPA is maneuvering in that world while ensuring that marijuana policies are grounded in DPA’s core values.

Other Opportunities for Targeted Funding in the Field

To conclude the conversation, we talked about other leading organizations in the field that could benefit from additional financial support. These included:

  1. National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW). NAPW is headed by Lynn Paltrow, who is a strong speaker and leader. NAPW’s work, which addresses the intersection of women’s rights, reproductive rights, and drug policy reform, is considered by Nadelmann to be the most challenging in the field.
  2. Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC). HRC is led by Allan Clear, who Nadelmann believes to be a very ethical leader.
  3. Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). Headed by Julie Stewart, Nadelmann said FAMM does very important work.
  4. Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). MAPS is led by Rick Doblin, who Nadelmann stated is the outstanding advocate for legitimizing and funding psychedelics research. He noted that MAPS is doing smart work.
  5. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). Nadelmann described Executive Director Neill Franklin as an effective leader and a powerful speaker.
  6. Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). Funders such as OSF and Ford Foundation have been very supportive of this model. It was pioneered in Seattle, and DPA is now involved in the effort to replicate it in Santa Fe, NM. Representatives of other major cities have visited LEAD to consider the possibility of implementing the model back home.
  7. Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. Iva Carruthers is a courageous leader who fully embraces drug policy reform and has been bold in advocating for the DPA agenda among her membership of largely African American clergy.

One important general funding opportunity is to support innovative studies that the government will not fund. Subjects include heroin maintenance, injection sites, and other cutting-edge reform and harm reduction efforts. DPA would also encourage researchers to submit proposals to federal agencies on controversial subjects. 

Current Challenges

Consistent with the information above, one of the biggest organizational challenges for DPA is advancing a harm reduction and decriminalization approach for people addicted to drugs or otherwise engaged in heavy drug use—the five to 10 million people in America driving most of the drug market. DPA considers this to be the core challenge for the next generation of drug policy reformers, especially because this is such a difficult and underfunded issue. While he is optimistic about prospects for marijuana legalization, Nadelmann cautions that marijuana is not going to legalize itself, and that we have to guard against overconfidence and other risks. He is also confident that the incarceration rate will continue to decline, but since current levels are so incredibly high, we’re a long way from DPA’s objective to “make America average.”


As previously discussed elsewhere, there are no outstanding concerns regarding the ongoing funding of DPA’s work. Nadelmann was able to very clearly articulate DPA’s goals and priorities during this meeting. He also noted the spaces in which DPA did not work, or would not emphasize, providing more clarity about strategies and guideposts. Nadelmann was also helpfully candid in discussing the state of the field, the challenges past and present, and what is needed to make progress. 

Appendix A: Guiding Questions for Site Visit

Questions used to focus the conversation included:

  1. [1]

    Included here is a link to a general overview of the Portugal model, with a brief assessment of what has changed since it was first implemented. This is one of many articles on the topic, but it’s short and well balanced.