George Soros's Long Strange Trip
By far the most conspicuous part of Soros's empire is the Lindesmith Center. That's largely because it is directed by Nadelmann, who has a knack for saying things that others can't--or won't--say. Lindesmith is so integral a part of the Open Society Institute that its offices are mixed in right along with other Soros ventures like the Soros Documentary Fund and the Project on Death in America in the midtown Manhattan building that also houses Soros's business interests.
The two men met in 1992, when Soros was looking to extend his philanthropic efforts to the United States. Nadelmann was a Princeton professor and one of the most visible--and provocative--critics of US drug policy. (In 1993 Nadelmann declared, "It's nice to think that in another five or ten years...the right to possess and consume drugs may be as powerfully and as widely understood as the other rights of Americans.") Soros invited Nadelmann to lunch. After further discussions, in 1994 Soros agreed to create the Lindesmith Center and put Nadelmann at the helm. The center (named for the late Professor Alfred Lindesmith of Indiana University, the first prominent US academic to challenge the war on drugs approach) became the first of what are now dozens of domestic programs run out of OSI. Today, it has eighteen employees in New York and San Francisco and a modest budget of $1.7 million.
Although he's still actively managing billions in investments, Soros gives major face time to the drug reform effort. "My impression of Soros: extremely smart guy," says Kevin Zeese, a leading drug reform campaigner. "He can look at situations and be very helpful in figuring out strategies that make sense." When Zeese was a staffer at the Washington-based Drug Policy Foundation (DPF), which was, before Lindesmith, the leading pro-decriminalization advocacy group in the country, he sent Soros a grant proposal asking him to support lobbying and other advocacy activities. Soros invited Zeese to breakfast and confessed he didn't know enough about the policy issues to feel comfortable funding advocacy per se. But if Zeese was willing to tackle projects such as needle exchange and AIDS prevention--hands-on treatment as opposed to efforts to change laws--Soros was in. Zeese later moved on to form his own group, Common Sense for Drug Policy, which combines advocacy work with support for service-oriented programs. Last year Soros gave the organization $125,000, a quarter of its $500,000 budget.
As an alternative to locking people up, most Soros-backed groups advocate what they call "harm reduction"--a common-sense approach to drug policy that would nonetheless represent a radical departure from current practice. "The basic idea," Nadelmann says, "is that you have a fallback strategy for dealing with people who are engaged in behavior that can be risky or dangerous. So if you're smoking cigarettes, smoke less or don't smoke around kids or don't throw your ashes in dry timber. If you're drinking alcohol, don't drink and drive. You ride a bicycle--use a helmet. That's harm reduction."
In other words, harm reduction is about accepting certain realities about substance abuse and then trying to minimize the related harm to everyone. It accepts that some people will use drugs regardless of the consequences or penalties. Therefore, the key is to educate the public with accurate information--not hysterics--and, where that doesn't work, follow up with treatment. It involves containing and controlling drug use and therefore its harmful consequences to both the users and others who may be affected by the abuse--spouses and children, crime victims and so on.
Lindesmith is perhaps the foremost practitioner of this approach, but Soros's drug reform philanthropy is by no means limited to Lindesmith, and Nadelmann has played a key role in helping him decide what else to support. Since 1993, Soros's OSI has committed roughly $11 million to the DPF, which makes its own grants for needle exchange, women's treatment, drug education and methadone programs. Other recipients of Soros money include the Harm Reduction Coalition, an advocacy group with leadership largely made up of recovering drug abusers; the Research and Policy Reform Center, an OSI affiliate that works to affect the political process directly, coordinating medical-marijuana ballot initiatives and pushing for state-level legislation (such as revising the drastic Rockefeller laws in New York and expanding access to methadone in Vermont); Drug Strategies, a mom-and-apple-pie group that promotes treatment, education and prevention; and the Tides Foundation, a progressive San Francisco-based grant-making institution that supports needle exchange. Soros has also taken the issue abroad, giving $3.8 million over the past four years to support harm-reduction programs in Central and Eastern Europe.
An immediate goal of many organizations devoted to harm reduction is expanding access to methadone treatment--a program that is seen by skeptics as just substituting one addiction for another. In response, writing in Foreign Affairs last year, Nadelmann noted that the "addiction" to methadone is "more like a diabetic's 'addiction' to insulin than a heroin addict's to product bought on the street." While methadone has been shown in scores of studies to be an effective treatment for heroin addiction--and findings by the National Institute on Drug Abuse show that an intravenous drug user enrolled in a methadone treatment program is seven times less likely to become infected with HIV than a person not enrolled in one--it remains acutely underfunded, with at most 180,000 of the nation's estimated 800,000 heroin users able to get it. Closing this gap has been a top priority of OSI-funded drug reform organizations, which have pursued it by lobbying for legislation on methadone maintenance treatment in the eight states where it is still illegal, participating in conferences and spearheading public education drives to counter perceptions that methadone treatment is just drug abuse by another name.
Harm-reduction groups are also fighting to expand needle-exchange programs, bolstered by research by the federal Centers for Disease Control, which estimates that half of all new HIV cases stem from use of infected syringes. No more than an estimated 10 percent of injection drug users have access to clean-needle programs. (Contaminated needles have created a new AIDS generation: A 1995 National Academy of Sciences report, which called for the Surgeon General to lift the federal ban on funding needle-exchange programs, stated that "more than half of all pediatric AIDS cases reported in 1993 can be linked to the HIV epidemic among injection drug users.") Soros has made major grants for needle exchange through the DPF, the Tides Foundation and the George Williams Fund, which is the principal source of private funding for needle exchange in the United States as well as in Central and Eastern Europe.
Critics charge that while harm reduction sounds reasonable, it will only lead to increased drug use, with all its attendant social ills. "Anything that becomes more accessible to adults will become more accessible to young people," notes Dr. Jerome Jaffe, who served as director of the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention in the Nixon Administration. "Coming out with a sensible and workable policy is simply avoided in these very interesting flights of rhetoric Ethan is capable of. He can be an effective speaker to people who are not fully cognizant of all the problems we face."