A conversation with Drug Policy Alliance on February 13, 2015


Note: These notes were compiled by Good Ventures and give an overview of the major points made by Dr. Nadelmann. In October 2015, a Drug Policy Alliance representative reviewed these notes and added some updates [in brackets].


Good Ventures spoke with Dr. Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) to learn about DPA activities in 2014. Conversation topics included updates on DPA's involvement in marijuana policy reform campaigns in 2014, international work and work in California, work to end federal marijuana prohibition, work on other drugs, and other DPA projects.

Updates on DPA marijuana policy reform work

2014 marijuana liberalization campaigns


DPA was highly involved in the successful Oregon legalization initiative – DPA served on the drafting team, provided more than half the funding, and supported the on-the-ground campaign managers. Winning in Oregon was important for keeping up the momentum on marijuana legalization.

In Oregon, there are currently several bills in the legislature that pertain to the implementation of legalized marijuana. There is a question of who is going to regulate legalized marijuana – the health commission or the Liquor Control Commission. [Since the interview with Ethan, the Liquor Control Commission was given regulatory power over the marijuana market.]

DPA is trying to have parties on all sides of the issue agree to a multi-step process of gradual change, so that implementing the legislation is more palatable. In situations like this, DPA is seen the standard-bearer for good public policy that represents the interests of consumers, small growers and medical marijuana patients. [Since the interview, DPA helped work out details regarding state and local taxes and expungement of criminal records for 78,000 people. In light of the swift progress made on regulations, the state moved up the start date of legal sales to October 1.]


The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) led the legalization campaign in Alaska; DPA provided feedback on the draft of the initiative and contributed funding near the end of the campaign.

Washington D.C.

DPA helped staff the marijuana legalization initiative campaign, served as the primary funder, hired seasoned consultants, ran ads, worked with the City Council, and framed legalization as a civil rights issue, which voters cited in exit polls as a key reason for supporting the measure.


In Florida, DPA assisted with the drafting of the medical marijuana legalization initiative, as well as providing some funding for the campaign. The initiative received 57% of the vote; however, Florida requires 60% of the vote to pass an initiative. The opposition campaign was well funded by Sheldon Adelson.

The Florida legislature may pass medical marijuana legislation. If the legislature passes a good medical marijuana bill and the governor signs it, there probably will not be another ballot initiative. [Since the interview, the legislature failed to pass the bill. Local advocates are moving toward an initiative campaign.]


Guam passed a ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana. DPA helped the Guam legislature draft the bill; the legislature then decided to include it on the ballot.

New York

In 2014, DPA played a pivotal role in the passage of medical marijuana legislation in New York. Peter Lewis had provided a substantial amount of the funding for the campaign, Compassionate Care New York. DPA believes the governor’s last-minute amendments made the bill overly restrictive, but the passage of the bill is a big victory regardless. DPA is deeply involved in the implementation of the new law and is working to expand access.

New Mexico

DPA's New Mexico state director, Emily Kaltenbach, worked with an advocacy organization, Progress Now, to put marijuana decriminalization measures on a couple of local ballots (in Santa Fe county and Bernalillo county). Though the governor of New Mexico opposed these initiatives, both were passed, and by wider margins than Governor Martinez received for re-election.

Recently, a marijuana legalization bill passed in New Mexico’s Senate Rules Committee, the first time a legalization bill passed in a state legislative committee in U.S. history. New Mexico is a priority state for DPA. DPA is committed to a long-term campaign in the state.


Ohio has traditionally been a difficult state to do marijuana policy work in. There are several advocacy groups in the state that are usually underfunded.

A bipartisan group was recently created called ResponsibleOhio. It’s composed of ten business interests that in total committed roughly $20 million to legalizing medical and recreational marijuana in Ohio in 2015 through the initiative process. ResponsibleOhio's proposal permits only its ten investors (technically the properties owned by the ten investors) to grow marijuana wholesale. The other parts of the initiative follow the more typical "licensed free-market" model. If the ten investors fail to support this market with wholesale supply, the legislature could remove their exclusive right to grow wholesale.

DPA will refrain from endorsing or opposing this campaign. It has provided advice to the campaign and encouraged ResponsibleOhio to include a provision legalizing growing marijuana at home, among other improvements to the initiative language consistent with DPA’s values.

Any effort towards ending marijuana prohibition is consistent with DPA's mission, especially in states like Ohio where reform is very difficult. However, a small number of firms gaining control of the entire wholesale market is not what DPA has in mind as optimal policy. Something similar is happening in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts, where a small number of licenses are distributed. However, the Ohio proposal goes further by amending the state's constitution to restrict the market to a few specifically named firms, which would be very difficult to change later.

In general, Dr. Nadelmann would prefer to see laws that benefit small producers over corporate interests.


In Colorado, the legality of marijuana for people between the ages of 18 and 21 did not change with the passage of the legalization initiative in 2012. Since then, DPA succeeded in expanding diversion opportunities for this age group and reducing the penalties for marijuana use and possession for the 18- to 21-year-old age group.

Management of 2016 legalization campaigns

Currently, DPA has taken the lead in California. It is reaching out to a wide range of constituents, including environmental groups who have an interest in regulating the water use of legal grows and preventing ecological damage caused by illicit grows. The environmental groups are pushing for DPA to provide funding for environmental cleanup as part of its initiative. [Since the interview, the political situation has become increasingly complex.]

MPP is taking the lead in Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Arizona. DPA is co-drafting the initiatives and will consider contributing funds if it approves of the final initiative language and the management of the campaign, and if funding is available.

Marijuana legalization in California

In California, very few people are being arrested for marijuana-related crimes because of the far-reaching decriminalization bill passed in 2010, and there is access to medical marijuana, so the reasons to push for fully legalized marijuana may not be obvious to everyone.

However, the current situation in California is inherently unstable. There are large black and grey markets operating in the state, which tend to attract organized crime. [Since the interview, legislation to regulate the medical marijuana industry passed and awaits the Governor’s signature. DPA is not supportive because it contains a provision barring people with felony convictions from obtaining business licenses and allows municipalities to prevent patients from growing their own marijuana.]

Nationally and internationally, California is very important as a symbol. When Dr. Nadelmann goes to Mexico and asks how to open up the drug policy dialogue there, he is told that legalizing marijuana in California is the biggest thing that would push the process forward in Mexico.

Police opposition to marijuana legalization in California

The police, sheriffs, and possibly the district attorneys will likely be the most vocal in opposing marijuana legalization in California. The prison guards union did not oppose the 2010 legalization initiative, so DPA is hopeful that they will stay out of the fight in 2016 as well.

The growing momentum to legalize marijuana is creating something of an existential  crisis for American police. Currently, police officers have a great deal of leverage over citizens who are suspected of possessing marijuana. Legalization reduces their interpersonal and legal power over people, notably young men of color.

Federal marijuana prohibition

DPA is working to end the federal prohibition on marijuana. Ironically, though, the federal prohibition may be the force that is preventing large corporate marijuana interests from emerging. Currently, legal marijuana production is generally restricted to state-level producers, or restricted to in-state investment.

An amendment was passed that would prevent the Justice Department from spending money to block medical marijuana in states that had legalized it. This was a big victory – DPA had been working on this amendment for a long time. [Since the interview, the Senate and House include an array of reforms in an appropriations bill that DPA has advocated for many years: prohibiting the DEA from undermining medical marijuana policies in states where it is legal, forcing the Veterans Administration to let veterans use medical marijuana, prohibiting the Treasury Department from going after banks that provide checking accounts to medical or non-medical dispensaries, and eliminating obstacles to implementing marijuana legalization in D.C.]


DPA not only helps pass legislation and initiatives but also gets involved in the details of their implementation. Their reasons are threefold:

While for-profit interests are increasingly looking to influence legislative drafting, they have been most engaged during the implementation process. DPA remains involved in implementation to balance their influence with that of small growers, patients, consumers, and those most impacted by the drug war.  However, work on implementation is expensive and can be harder to raise funding for.

Update on DPA's international work


DPA remains deeply involved in Uruguay. President Vásquez recently appointed a drug czar who has a longstanding working relationship with DPA.


DPA has been very involved in Jamaica, where there was a strong bipartisan effort to reform marijuana laws. The legislation included protections for religious, medical, and scientific usage, decriminalized possession, allowed for the right to grow, and permitted the use of foreign medical marijuana certification. DPA provided input on many of these ideas.

DPA is trying to ensure that the rights of small growers are protected in the forthcoming legislation. The Jamaican legislation will probably not fully legalize marijuana use yet – the U.S. State Department is applying some pressure on Jamaica about the issue.


In Columbia, there is a medical marijuana bill that has the support of the president.

Other countries

Marijuana policy reform work is occurring in Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Costa Rica as well.

European countries used to be at the forefront of marijuana legalization, then the U.S. began to leapfrog them. The Czech Republic, Denmark, Spain, and other countries are now again making progress on reform. European countries are experimenting with other reform models (e.g. coffee shop-like dispensaries, small growers); Dr. Nadelmann is interested in seeing if these models would be viable in the U.S.

Work on other drugs

Reducing overdose fatalities

DPA is the leading organization in the U.S. focused on reducing overdose fatalities. DPA's work in this area includes pioneering 9-1-1 Good Samaritan laws (which provides limited amnesty from arrest for drug possession to people who call in drug-related emergencies), making naloxone (a drug that counters the effects of opioid overdoses) as widely available as possible, and educating the public about overdoses (e.g. that an overdose usually involves taking an opiate in combination with alcohol or another drug).

There are two reasons driving DPA's work on drug health issues: to reduce the harm drugs cause, and to make progress on rolling back drug prohibition.

For example, DPA supports syringe access programs and overdose prevention measures not only because both are proven to save lives, but also because they create exceptions to the abstinence-only frame of U.S. drug prohibition. In both instances, people who use drugs are treated not as criminals but as partners in a public health campaign.


In 2014, DPA was involved in the effort to remove the prescription requirement for naloxone in Vermont and California. Now naloxone is available over-the-counter in those states, which will dramatically increase access. [Since the interview, naloxone has become available over-the-counter in more than a dozen states, a major public health victory.]

DPA has made a large commitment to this area – it has spent millions of dollars on the effort without receiving dedicated funding for it. [Since the interview, DPA did receive a sizeable commitment from an individual donor for this work, though not enough to cover existing expenses.] DPA's staff is passionate about the issue.

Supervised injection facilities

There are about 60-70 supervised injection facilities (places where people can legally use drugs under medical supervision and receive referrals to other services) in the world – across Europe, in Vancouver, and in Sydney. There are no supervised injection facilities in the U.S. A DPA priority is campaigning for the establishment of supervised injection facilities in San Francisco and New York, and to a lesser extent in New Mexico, and raising awareness about the issue nationally. This has been difficult to raise funding for, though some long-time HIV/AIDS funders are increasingly on board.

Evidence shows that supervised injection facilities reduce the spread of HIV, reduce overdose fatalities, reduce public nuisance, and save tax dollars.

Heroin maintenance

DPA has been involved in heroin maintenance campaigns since the late 1990s when they organized the first international conference on the issue in 1998. The conference helped launch NAOMI (the North American Opioid Medication Initiative), the principle result of which was the creation of heroin maintenance programs in Canada. There is currently a program in Vancouver, and there was previously a project in Montreal.

DPA is looking for a way to set up a heroin maintenance program in the U.S. – most likely as a research project. DPA has had a difficult time getting traction on this issue in the U.S.

Sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine

DPA had worked for years on remedying the disparity in California between penalties for crack cocaine possession and powder cocaine possession, framing it as a racial justice issue. In 2014, California passed the California Fair Sentencing Act, which eliminates this disparity. DPA also played a pivotal role in the Crack the Disparity campaign, which reformed the disparity at the federal level in 2010, and in Connecticut, which became the first state eliminate the disparity in 2005.

Other DPA work

DPA's goal is to diminish the role of criminalization and the criminal justice system in drug policy to the maximum extent consistent with public safety and health.  

Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program

LEAD programs allow police to immediately direct low-level drug offenders to housing and treatment services without arresting and booking them. This program model was pioneered in Seattle. As policy, LEAD is significant because it allows for substantial reform outside the legislative process, and is a step toward the Portugal model of decriminalization.   

DPA worked with local government agencies, advocates, and service providers to establish a LEAD site in Santa Fe (the second LEAD site in the country), and remains involved with its implementation. DPA has played a major role in popularizing LEAD programs across the country. [Since the interview, DPA worked with the Ford Foundation to organize a briefing on LEAD at the White House, attended by more than 200 elected and appointed officials, advocates, and other leaders, representing 30 jurisdictions from across the country.]

DPA is deeply involved in establishing a LEAD program in Albany and is also working Ithaca, New York City, Los Angeles County, the Denver metro area, and San Francisco.

Keeping children safe in a world with greater access to drugs

DPA relaunched its youth and drugs work, hiring Jerry Otero from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids to build on the organization’s Safety First and Beyond Zero Tolerance projects and forge relationships with departments of education and people who work with youth. DPA received some dedicated funding for this project.

Nightlife safety

DPA began a project on safety in the nightlife community. Most municipalities are not very thoughtful about how to manage the risks associated with their nightlife community. Club owners and promoters worry about keeping medical personnel nearby, because this could later be used as evidence that the club was aware of illicit drug use.

A DPA staffer, Stephanie Jones, has been engaging with club owners and promoters on this issue. There are three objectives for this work:

  1. Building harm reduction measures into nightlife venues, including allowing for drug-checking stations so people can test the quality of the substances they intend to take, a practice common in Europe but essentially banned in the U.S.
  1. Working with municipal officials to create an understanding about what it means to have a safe nightlife community.
  1. Engaging young people to develop consciousness about drug policy reform.

DPA is eager to raise funding for this project – there is currently no dedicated funding for it.

New Jersey bail system reform

DPA helped draft and introduce legislation in New Jersey to end the system of monetary bail, an issue area gaining traction around the country. Tens of thousands of people around the country await trial in jail, often for minor offenses including drugs, because they cannot afford bail. Despite heavy opposition from the for-profit bail industry, DPA’s campaign succeeded in replacing monetary bail with a risk-assessment tool. Once implemented, it will lead to thousands of fewer people behind bars in the state.

DPA will consider taking on an issue not explicitly about drug policy, like bail reform or civil asset forfeiture, if there is a significant enough overlap with the criminalization of drugs. Absent dedicated funding, DPA probably will not pursue significantly additional bail reform campaigns. The Public Welfare Foundation provided c3 support for the effort in New Jersey.