Vice Squad
Saturday, April 09, 2005
Nadelmann Talk at University of Chicago

Yesterday Ethan Nadelmann, the Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, gave a talk at the University of Chicago, and Vice Squad was in attendance. The talk was chock-full of interesting tidbits, too many to do justice to in a blog post. I'll mention the overall framework, and maybe a couple of those tidbits. The usual disclaimer of blogging about a talk applies, namely, that though I took notes and tried to be careful, I am in danger of misrepresenting what was said.

Nadelmann believes that changes are necessary to two broad features of our (the US's) current war on drugs. The first feature is the central role played by the criminal justice system in the regulation of some drugs. (Nadelmann was pretty funny when he noted that it is "these" drugs for which we rely on the criminal justice system, and not "those" drugs. "Those" drugs -- caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, the pharmaceuticals -- can be handled by other means. Presumably he was suggesting that the distinction between "these" and "those" was fairly arbitrary.) Second, and a feature of the war on drugs that receives less attention from reformers, is the underlying notion that there is no permissible relationship between 'those' drugs and us except for abstinence. He thinks that this commitment to abstinence is a form of religious conviction: we shouldn't pollute our bodies, which are holy vessels, with "those" drugs, which are fundamentally evil. This mindset and rhetoric could simply be scoffed at, except that policy follows from these convictions, as when in 1988 Congress adopted a resolution that the US would be drug-free by 1995, and the UN in 1998 adopted the goal of a drug-free world. Much of the last part of Nadelmann's talk was given over to a strong endorsement of harm prevention policies, as exemplified by the Drug Policy Alliance-affiliated Safety First program. (Vice Squad has commented on harm reduction for teenagers and Safety First in the past.) Nadelmann gave a riveting performance.

The one minor area of disagreement that I had with the content of the talk concerned whether private employers should be allowed to discriminate against (read: fire) workers who smoke (or, presumably, use other drugs) off of the job. When the Michigan smoking case surfaced, I offered some reluctant support for the right of employers to discriminate in that fashion. Nadelmann believes that such forms of discrimination should not be countenanced, and the Drug Policy Alliance has a flash animation where you can register your own opinion. This same issue came up in my Regulation of Vice class on Thursday, and I was ambivalent then. Let's face it, I am even less sure about this than I am about the appropriateness of most vice policies.

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