Q&A: Pot legalization booster Ethan Nadelmann makes his case

Michelle Theriault Boots

On Aug. 19, Alaskans will vote on whether to legalize marijuana. 

On Wednesday night, those in Anchorage will have a chance to hear from Ethan Nadelmann, the man known as the single most influential architect of the decades-long movement to decriminalize pot -- a movement that's been picking up steam in recent years with legalization victories in Washington and Colorado.

A 56-year-old New Yorker with a handful of degrees from Harvard, Nadelmann is credited for engineering a national strategy that has sought to frame regulating pot sales as a generator of tax revenues and a way to refocus law enforcement on policing serious crime. Rolling Stone magazine called him "the driving force for the legalization of marijuana in America."

Nadelmann, who is the head of the Drug Policy Alliance, will speak in Anchorage on Wednesday night at "Time to Legalize? A Public Discussion on Marijuana Laws and Policy," a panel organized by the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The panel will also feature speakers who argue against legalization, including a representative from the national group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

Nadelmann answered questions for the Daily News on Tuesday, just after getting off his flight to Anchorage:

Q. Why do you believe Alaska should legalize marijuana?

A. It makes no sense to continue with a criminal prohibition. The current policy is still underground, it's still black market. It still involves some violence. I think most people recognize it's better to regulate and tax this business than to keep it in the hands of criminal organizations. And most people would rather the police focus on real crime rather than hassling people involved with marijuana.

Q. How should society deal with drugs other than marijuana, such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine?

A. I think the first and most important thing is to treat the use and addiction as a health issue. There's powerful evidence from around the world that treating the use and abuse of cocaine, heroin and other drugs as a medical issue, as a health issue, reduces crime, reduces addiction and saves taxpayers' money. It also helps keep families together.

Q. The federal government considers marijuana to be a "Schedule I" illegal drug. Do you believe that will change? When?

A. The federal government is three different departments. Congress, I think, will be among the last to change. Change will come from states first and eventually Congress will take action, just as happened with the repeal of alcohol prohibition. People lead, states take the next step and Congress is the last to follow. I think it's quite striking that the White House and Justice Department have actually provided a modicum of leadership on this issue in the last six months. A memorandum issued by Justice Department gave Washington and Colorado a qualified green light for their regulation efforts -- that was a fairly bold move.

Q. What do you think is driving rapid changes in public opinion about marijuana legalization?

A. There's a number of factors: it's been true for decades that roughly half of all teenagers have used marijuana. But this is really the first generation where half their parents have used marijuana. There's a high level of familiarity with marijuana in American society among people under age 60. And that means conversations about it are a lot more realistic and honest. Legalization for medical purposes helped transform the discussion. People began to appreciate the extent to which marijuana could be useful for many people... As more and more states begin to establish medical marijuana dispensaries and regulate production and sale people saw the sky didn't fall.

Q. What role has Alaska played in the history of the legalization movement in America?

A. Alaska was sort of a pioneer because it went the furthest 40 years ago in terms of ending criminalization of marijuana. I'm a New Yorker. But I know there's always been a great respect for personal freedom that exists here. The fact that Alaska was among the first states to legalize medical marijuana, back in 1998, it was at the front of the pack together with California, Washington and Oregon, Alaska has generally been seen as a leader in this regard.

Q. You were quoted in an interview saying you felt there was "some possibility" Alaska would legalize in 2014, but that Oregon had a better chance. Why do you think that?

A. I think that public support in Alaska is very strong. Probably as strong or close as it is in Oregon. The public polls show you have a clear majority in favor of legalizing. The question is, you changed the constitution here a few years ago to require that ballot initiatives be voted on during (the) primary vote, when you tend to have lower turnout. The real question is, who is going to show up (to the polls) in August? That's the question mark I have.

Q. Are Alaska's existing marijuana laws, which allow for limited in-home possession, already loose enough?

A. The question becomes just why not rationalize the system entirely -- regulate it, tax it and control it? It's important, especially with edible marijuana, that people know the potency of product they are consuming. There continues to be a criminal market with all sorts of problems -- why not allow for some taxation and regulation? And why not end the hypocrisy with treating marijuana one way when alcohol is treated another entirely?

Q. Opponents have said that regulating marijuana like alcohol would create a new bureaucracy and "burdensome government regulation," which Alaskans tend to dislike. What's your response?

A. That's sort of an absurd argument. Right now you have a law enforcement bureaucracy that's devoting resources and infringing on people's lives in a much greater way than any marijuana regulatory board ever would. Given a choice between police, courts and prisons engaging in highly expensive, de facto regulation of illegal markets -- it's a much more costly and invasive form of quote unquote "government regulation" than simply having a regulatory agency that can oversee quality and potency.

Q. Will regulating marijuana like alcohol make it more available to teenagers?

A. That makes no sense. If you think about it, who has the best access to marijuana in America? It's teenagers. Who had the best access 10 years ago? Teenagers. There's three national surveys where teens say it is easier to buy marijuana than alcohol. If ever there was an indictment of failure of current marijuana policies, that's it. I think adults lose any sense of credibility with young people ... when they use that argument.

Q. How do you talk to your child about marijuana?

A. My daughter is now 25. It has been an ongoing conversation ever since she was very young. In part because I'm her dad. My bottom line has always been on safety, on staying safe. And the best way to stay out of trouble is not to use it in the first place. But, if you do, it's important to stay safe. If you use marijuana don't use it stupidly, or too often and don't do it until you are older. Don't mix it with other drugs. Also, be careful where you use it. An arrest or getting expelled from school can do more harm to your life than marijuana. But I'm very proud of her. She's been very responsible about these things.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.