Picture two guys talking about legalizing weed. OK, got it. Do you picture trays of grilled red and banana peppers? How about a burnished silver coffee urn? In your mental picture, are the men wearing suits and ties? If you picture two burnt out hippies shouting about how “the man” won't let them smoke their herb, you need to update your image of the drug-legalization camp.
On Thursday, Dec. 2, in the Mission Valley Marriott's dignified Rio Vista Ballroom, San Diego State University sponsored a classy and catered public forum to address drug-enforcement alternatives. The night's centerpiece was a debate between Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann and former U.S. Attorney and current SDSU law professor Peter Nunez.
As the crowd of 150 grazed the free buffet, it was tough to distinguish the event from an insurance salesmen's convention. But between the navy blazers there was the balding man with the tiny gray ponytail and the guy in slacks and Converse high tops. Other than a few passionate, likely dope-smoking college kids, the event didn't much resemble your first legalization debate (the one where you-home for your freshman Thanksgiving break-shouted “You just don't get my generation!” at your dad). This crowd was calm, respectful and open-minded to both sides of the debate.
“Drug addiction is bad,” said Nunez in his opening statements. “It's not good for anybody and we should try to prevent it.... I don't understand-why would we adopt a policy that would increase drug use.”
Articulate, bright and possessing an impressive résumé, Nunez's argument to the crowd was essentially this: drugs kill people, people get killed over them and the damage they do costs taxpayers billions upon billions of dollars every year. His points were difficult, if not impossible, to refute. So Nadelmann didn't try.
Nadelmann conceded that it's possible that there may be more users if drugs were legal, but he doubted those users would be teens.
“Who has the best access to drugs? Teens,” he told the chuckling audience. “Who had the best access 10 years ago? Teens. Who had the best access 20 years ago? Teens.... Teenagers have always had the best access.”
The key to Nadelmann's campaign is getting the nation to rethink how it views drugs and the drug war. Nadelmann's credentials-he holds bachelor's, law and doctorate degrees from Harvard University and a master's degree in international relations from the London School of Economics-and his clean-cut appearance are major assets in convincing skeptics to open their minds to the possibility that a world without drugs isn't feasible. Nadelmann is funny and likable, but he's also probably the nation's authority on alternatives to the drug war-Nunez even teaches Nadelmann's book.
“Drugs have always been part of society and always will be part of society,” he told the crowd. “Our real challenge is not to get rid of drugs because that's not possible. Our real challenge is to learn how to live with them so they can cause the least possible harm and the greatest possible benefit.”
Nadelmann and his Drug Policy Alliance advocate total legalization of marijuana and the decriminalization of drugs like cocaine and heroin. Nadelmann points to numerous European countries that have had great success decriminalizing hard drugs.
While Nadelmann didn't win over Nunez, his argument impressed the applauding audience. It seems that the broad-based legalization movement that Nadelmann says is sweeping the country isn't all smoke. Legalization advocates have evolved into everyday Americans. Or at least that's what Nadelmann wants you to think.
America's view of drugs and the drug war is likely somewhere between Nunez's and Nadelmann's. But a having guy like Nadelmann as the legalization movement's point man can't hurt its chances of winning over more hearts and minds.