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George Soros's Long Strange Trip | The Nation

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George Soros's Long Strange Trip

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Perhaps the most controversial element of Soros's drug-reform portfolio--and the one most frequently associated with a pro-legalization agenda--is the medical-marijuana movement. All told, Soros-backed ballot initiatives related to marijuana have gone to the people in seven states, beginning with California's Proposition 215 (where Soros donated $550,000) and Arizona's Proposition 200 in 1996, where Soros plopped down $430,000 and later tacked on $366,000 to help fortify the initiative, which also introduced probation and treatment for nonviolent first- and second-time offenders instead of prison. The California initiative has yet to take effect because of foot-dragging by conservative state officials. But in Arizona, since Prop 200 passed, jail rolls have been lightened of hundreds of drug users and the state has saved more than $2.5 million in prison costs, according to a recent report by Arizona's Administrative Office of the Courts.

Research assistance: David Levinson Wilk.

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Russ Baker
Russ Baker is the founder of the Real News Project. He may be reached at contact@realnews.org.

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Moving from grant-making and policy-wonking to passing laws has proven to be a productive step, but one requiring delicacy. "We are very cautious not to mix tax deductibles with non-tax deductibles, where you are trying to influence legislation," Soros says. "We live in a glass bowl, and people look at you very carefully, so we look at everything very carefully. If anything, we err on the side of caution." Soros has used his own money to back these legislative ventures, but it has nevertheless been Nadelmann brokering many of the crucial deals, bringing in two other businessmen, Peter Lewis (an insurance magnate from Cleveland) and John Sperling (founder of the for-profit University of Phoenix), each of whom ponied up approximately a third of a million dollars.

Nadelmann, 42, is the son of a rabbi. Lean and pale-freckled, with close-cropped auburn hair and a gray-tinged beard, he speaks with studied fervor, his voice ringing with conviction, his hands punctuating his arguments as he parcels out his words. At a typical gathering, Nadelmann might begin by acknowledging the widespread and often legitimate panic sparked by drugs: parents' fear of losing their children, the public's alarm over rampant drug-related crime, the spread of HIV. Quickly, though, he's challenging his audience to look more closely at positions they have probably never heard defended with such winning reasonableness: Throughout history and in all manner of societies, drugs have been present; like it or not, drugs will always be present. Drug abuse is self-directed behavior, and you cannot legislate such behavior. ("You shouldn't be arresting people and taking away their freedom and engaging them in the criminal justice system unless they really cause some harm to somebody else.") He argues that the drug war has devastated civil liberties, given police unprecedented new powers and penalized unevenly the preferred vices of various ethnic, racial and social groups. He complains that the massive rise in drug-related incarceration has decimated communities, destroyed families and put society's most vulnerable people not in a therapeutic environment but in one that actually fosters long-term drug use and related violence.

Nadelmann argues that the right of people to self-administer whatever they want is consonant with the objective of all libertarians, civil and otherwise. But he dislikes the word "legalize," which he finds needlessly divisive and somewhat misleading. The use of this term to disparage reformers reminds Nadelmann of the days when all trade unionists were labeled Marxists: "It's a pretty systematic effort by the drug warriors to really ghettoize us and portray us as one extreme," he says. Craig Reinarman, an OSI drug policy board member and professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, agrees: "The way you hear it from the drug warriors, you get the vision of vending machines--you go to the supermarket and ask, 'Where's the crack aisle? Where's the heroin aisle?'"

As a result of attacks like these, Nadelmann has become somewhat of a pariah to the drug-policy establishment--signaling his effectiveness as a critic but also the hurdles he must overcome. "The drug czar has refused to be at any public event where Nadelmann is," says Reinarman. "[McCaffrey] is probably smart enough to avoid embarrassment." Calvina Fay, deputy executive director at the Drug Free America Foundation, who has never been on a panel with Nadelmann, says, "We don't think debating is a very good idea."

In his florid presentations, Nadelmann occasionally pushes the analogy envelope, noting, for example, our unwillingness to ban cars, which kill more people than drugs do. The hyperbole makes academic drug-policy analysts--generally the middle-grounders of a continuum on which Lindesmith is seen as extreme--shake their heads. "Advocacy groups like the Lindesmith Center benefit in terms of charging up the people who are affiliated with them by seeing this in a sort of good-versus-evil conflict setting...[but] I'm frustrated to the extent that the whole debate has been polarized," says Jonathan Caulkins, a Carnegie Mellon public policy professor and researcher at RAND's Drug Policy Research Center. "Lindesmith has, in some cases, blocked practical, incremental improvement because it allows politicians to posture and to make outrageous statements...in place of serious thinking."

Critics point out that Nadelmann openly supported legalization in his pre-Lindesmith days. But he has since had a change of heart (or tactics) that Soros himself has no trouble accepting as genuine. Nadelmann's discomfort with prohibition is still apparent, but his language has softened, and he acknowledges and even promotes the more moderate positions of other reformers. "Ethan started out with a more radical position than the one he stands for today," says Soros. "There has been an evolution in his thinking. Partly because of his role at the Lindesmith Center, he has evolved and is now looking for more consensual and less ideological ways of dealing with things." Despite criticism of Nadelmann's approach, Soros has no intention of backing away from him. "I believe in substance and not image," says Soros. "If Ethan has an image problem, I think I can live with it. At the same time, we have constituted an advisory board that represents a broader range of views, so I want to make sure that I am striking a balance." Other OSI drug policy advisory board members include three sociology professors and a professor of public health--and one other figure as out-front as Nadelmann, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, famed for his early advocacy of decriminalization.

If Nadelmann and Soros are going to build any sort of popular movement around drug policy reform, one challenge they must face is the tension that persists between the legalization camp and black activists. Rev. Calvin Butts of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, for example, says he is for moving away from harsh penalties for possession, but against legalization. "There's a sharp debate in the black community regarding legalization," says Butts. "Those of us who deal with drug users and see the effects are opposed to legalization. Often white liberals just don't get it." Deborah Small, Lindesmith's director of public policy and community outreach, who is black and Latino, has a similar view. "To the extent there's tension in the drug-reform movement, it has a lot to do with the fact that the movement is dominated by white liberals whose principal issue has to do with legalization, particularly of marijuana," says Small, who was formerly legislative director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, where she worked with Nadelmann on changes in New York's harsh Rockefeller drug laws. "That doesn't have resonance in the African-American community, [where] the principal issues have to do with incarceration and punitive policies.... Legalization is not considered a legitimate option in the African-American community. With the alcohol and tobacco problems we face, legalization is seen as another form of genocide against communities of color. It is not enough to say you should be against the war on drugs. Removing that is not going to make the situation better unless you're talking about taking money from the war on drugs and using it for services so people don't return to drugs or drug-selling."

Small notes that Soros is, by definition, removed from some of the practical effects of the drug problem. "A month ago, we had a meeting at his estate--it was nice being up there; he has a beautiful home," she recalls. "That night--I live in Brooklyn near the projects--I heard gunshots. One of the things I couldn't help thinking about is that [Soros] doesn't have that experience. He doesn't have to hear gunshots. The drug war has a different meaning for me.... And yet I think he's a lot more sensitive than a lot of people who are disconnected from those consequences." Lindesmith itself, she says, is perhaps the strongest advocate on issues that matter to communities of color, such as the way felony convictions (many of which are drug related) have effectively disfranchised 13 percent of all black men.

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