George Soros’s Long Strange Trip

George Soros’s Long Strange Trip

Research assistance: David Levinson Wilk.


One thing about George Soros everyone can agree on: He isn’t worried what people think of him. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad blamed the American billionaire for nearly ruining Malaysia’s economy with massive currency speculation. Hard-core Russian nationalists decried as “meddling” his funding of progressive newspapers and institutions in post-Soviet Russia. Now, it’s a prickly domestic cause–drug policy–that has folks taking aim at this hard-nosed financier and controversial philanthropist.

Soros is the “Daddy Warbucks of drug legalization,” says Joseph Califano Jr. of Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Clinton Administration drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey won’t speak directly about Soros, but McCaffrey’s spokesman, Bob Weiner, was typically biting in his assessment of the Lindesmith Center, a Soros-backed institution that serves as a leading voice for Americans who want to decriminalize drug use: “I’m sure Lindesmith’s desire to take us into nihilism and chaos and to jam our hospital emergency rooms with more users has some valid purpose.” Out on the lunatic fringe, anti-Semitic cult leader Lyndon LaRouche has labeled Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew, the mastermind behind a global drug cartel.

As a creative philanthropist, Soros is perhaps best known for his largesse to causes in Central and Eastern Europe (last year alone he gave away half a billion in places like Bosnia and Kazakhstan). When in 1994 he chose, as one of his first domestic programs, to fund efforts to challenge the efficacy of America’s $37-billion-a-year war on drugs, he seemed intent on proving that he was either a fool or a visionary. It’s still too early for a final judgment. But one thing is clear: He’s touched a lot of raw nerves in challenging a long-entrenched view that the best way to fight drug abuse is through the criminal justice system.

That tendency was vividly apparent when in June 1998, at the United Nations’ second conference on drugs, General McCaffrey was handed a perfectly timed two-page advertisement that had just run in the New York Times. The banner headline read: the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself. Eyewitnesses recall the general fuming. And no wonder: The ad, brainchild of Lindesmith’s director, Ethan Nadelmann, was an open letter signed by a spectacular array of opinion-makers, including numerous Nobel Prize laureates, former presidents, prime ministers and former UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar.

Soros’s efforts to change the terms of the drug dialogue in America–from exhortation and punishment to treatment and rehabilitation–have ranged from such grand PR gestures as the Times open letter to the less glamorous tasks of research and grassroots advocacy. He has funded methadone-treatment and needle-exchange programs, supported a spate of successful medical-marijuana ballot initiatives and provided an institutional home in Lindesmith for Nadelmann, a man whom opponents tag as America’s most unabashed proselytizer for legalization of drugs. Over the past six years Soros has given some $30 million to drug reform–just 7 percent of his overall domestic giving, but nonetheless a significant sum in the circumscribed world of drug policy advocacy.

In an interview with The Nation, Soros argued that his interest in shaking up the conventional wisdom about the war on drugs–and challenging political leaders to look beyond the zero-tolerance military model–is entirely consistent with his vision of an “open society.” The parent organization of his worldwide philanthropic operation, the Open Society Institute (OSI), is founded upon the philosophical premise that nobody has a monopoly on the truth and that originally well-intentioned government efforts often turn repressive. “When I started looking to do something in the United States, [I saw that] one of the areas where policy has unintended adverse consequences is drug policy,” Soros says. “That was the insight that got me involved.” It’s hard to argue with the facts he cites: Back in 1980 the federal government spent $1 billion on drug control and approximately 50,000 Americans were incarcerated for drug-law violations. Today Washington spends $18 billion annually, 400,000 people are in jail for nonviolent drug-related offenses and drugs are still widely available to anyone who wants them.

Yet Soros is remarkably frank about the fact that he hasn’t got all the answers. “I don’t know what the right thing to do is,” he said, “but I do have a very strong conviction that what we are doing [now] is doing an awful lot of harm.” In the name of reducing that harm and learning more about the problem, Soros is backing a range of organizations and initiatives that are testing out new ground, without subjecting them to a rigid ideological litmus test. Still, organizations using Soros money share certain core principles. Whether they lobby against harsh determinate sentencing for first-time drug offenders, run needle-exchange programs for addicts or promote methadone and other drug treatment programs, they reject the notion that drug users should be treated as criminals. “Criminalization,” says Aryeh Neier, OSI’s president (formerly executive director of Human Rights Watch and of the ACLU), “is a strategy that buys into the notion that if you lock up enough young black males–for whatever reason–you will promote public safety.”

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.”

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.

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.

Most drug-policy experts agree that Soros and his associates have affected the national dialogue on drugs but see only one or two areas of concrete advances. “Ethan Nadelmann is a major figure in the drug-reform area, but I don’t detect any movement on the issues coming from anything other than medical-marijuana initiatives,” says Philip Heymann, who served as Deputy Attorney General under Clinton, where he was a key Justice Department figure with regard to drug issues. And those initiatives draw credible criticism that Soros and his associates are using a medical issue to advance the broader political agenda of drug decriminalization.

The harm-reduction approach has achieved other, less spectacular victories. After years of inaction, the House finally passed what had been a perennially doomed bill to soften the punitive forfeiture of civil assets by those arrested for drug offenses [see Eric Blumenson and Eva Nilsen, “The Drug War’s Hidden Economic Agenda,” March 9, 1998]. While the credit for this shift can’t be attributed specifically to Soros, his outfits have been active on the issue recently; OSI made a grant several months ago to the libertarian Cato Institute for a conference on forfeiture, and the Lindesmith Center hosted a seminar on the topic. Meanwhile, both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Institutes of Health have issued statements expressing their support for needle exchange, methadone treatment and medical marijuana. Polls nationwide show increased public skepticism toward the war on drugs and, in most cases, favorable opinion for efforts like medical marijuana. (Last year Congress refused to count the vote of a Washington, DC, medical-marijuana initiative; exit polls suggested that it had passed by 69 percent.) In addition, there’s growing sympathy among judges, legislators and ordinary citizens for doing away with harsh mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Lindesmith has been fighting an uphill battle to expand treatment for intravenous drug users, but this past summer the prospects finally became brighter. In July, the Clinton Administration proposed significant changes in methadone treatment policy, including national accreditation for methadone centers and a system for accrediting hospitals and doctors so that they can prescribe the drug. (The final regulations are expected to be issued early next year.) Yet the gap between available treatment slots and drug abusers who want them remains huge.

Even less promising is the status of needle exchange. Despite Soros’s $1 million matching grant to fund clean needles–and his support of many foundations working in this area–there has been little change in public policy toward such programs. In April of last year, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala was set to give a press conference announcing the government’s reversal of its position on needle-exchange funding, but the Clinton Administration reneged at the last minute.

Surveying these wins and losses, Soros himself says he has no intention of remaining the sole patron of the movement. “I think we want to move toward more publicly funded activity rather than being bankrolled by fat cats,” he says. He’s also pushing for smaller contributions from a larger base. Making good on his promise to allow the whole enterprise to sink or swim, as he has recently done with some of his Central and Eastern European nonprofits, Soros has cut back his donations to the DPF, eliminating funds for the group’s operations while continuing to fund its community-treatment grant program. DPF’s Tyler Green says that several heavily endowed old-line foundations have already offered to step into the breach (he asked that their names not be used). As for the marijuana initiatives, other funders plan to stay committed. “We’re in this for the long haul,” says University of Phoenix’s Sperling. “We’re on a roll.” Among other things, they plan to retry initiatives in Maine, Nevada and Colorado, where technicalities prevented them from getting on the ballot last time.

“The first five years have focused on a critique of the current approach,” says Gara LaMarche, OSI’s director of US programs. “The question is, What now? If the medical-marijuana initiatives showed that the conventional thinking on the war on drugs can be overcome, what’s the long-term agenda? We need to focus more on the intersection of drugs and the criminal justice system–to address the disabilities that affect great numbers of people, including drug testing, prosecution of minor offenses and mandatory minimums.” Lindesmith, LaMarche says, will probably be spun out as a freestanding organization.

“I think if there is any real challenge the Lindesmith Center and the drug-policy reform movement are facing, it is how to take a political viewpoint and ideology and turn it into a movement,” says Lindesmith’s Small. “It isn’t now. There’s a group of people who share a common perspective, but it hasn’t been turned into a plan of action. To be a movement, you have got to be able to communicate goals and aspirations to other communities, especially the minority communities. Those communities are not only not represented in the movement, they’re not even aware that a movement exists.”

After five years of verbal brickbats from drug warriors, Soros says he doesn’t mind being a target: “Other people express more respect for me because I am ready to say something that they would like to say if they could afford it.” Even staunch opponents of his views admire Soros’s unwavering commitment. “He doesn’t care how many articles are written against him,” says New York Times columnist and drug warrior A.M. Rosenthal, a heavy critic of Soros who nevertheless notes, “Social responsibility is what is important to him.”

Many Americans–especially strong supporters of a tough-on-drugs policy–still imagine drug users as people distinctly different from themselves. As Nadelmann likes to point out, Americans’ attitude toward drug users today is reminiscent of our attitude toward homosexuals thirty years ago. “You know one, you just don’t know you know one,” he says. We also don’t know whether enlightened policy models that work in small, relatively low-crime, relatively homogeneous and unfractured European societies will necessarily work here. There are just too many variables. To critics, Soros, Nadelmann and company are proposing a dangerous new course whose consequences are uncertain at best and potentially disastrous. “Lindesmith Center’s line is deliberately vague,” says UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman, a drug-reform moderate. “It’s like it used to be with the Old Leftists when you’d ask them, ‘What’s life going to be like after the revolution?’ ‘Oh, well, we’ll decide that after the revolution.'” Still, few would dispute that Soros is fostering a bracing debate on whether being at war with ourselves is really the best–or only–way to win the “war” against drugs.

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