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legalization | 12.03.2019

Ethan Nadelmann: Why California is the Big One

Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of Drug Policy Alliance, talks about what the future of cannabis in California means to the world.

The best and brightest minds in cannabis reform are gathering in one place to discuss the future of legal marijuana in California. Leading the pack, as one of the most influential crusaders in the last few decades is Ethan Nadelmann. Now his name might not ring any bells, but his organization might. Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City-based non-profit organization working to end the War on Drugs around the world. Described by Rolling Stone as, “The driving force for the legalization of marijuana in America,” Nadelmann is a high profile critic of both U.S. and international drug control policies. He spoke with us in the build up to the State Of Marijuana about the significance of the vote this November. 

Ethan Nadelmann on Prop 64

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What’s your overall feeling about this upcoming vote on Prop 64? Will we win? Will other states follow?


It feels that for the marijuana Reform movement these days the wind is very much at our backs. You know, we had a nice streak with the wins in Washington and Colorado in 2012, and the wins in Alaska and Oregon and Washington DC in 2014.

Because we do work internationally, I also want to mention the victory in Uruguay in 2013. So there’s been a whole series of wins and obviously we need to win as many of these initiatives that are going to be on the ballot as possible this coming November.

There’s going to be not just California, but Arizona, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts voting on legalization. Plus, there’s Florida, North Dakota, and possibly Arkansas and Missouri voting on medical marijuana. So there’s going to be anywhere from 7 to 9 marijuana reform measures on the ballot this election day, which means that this election day there’s a lot going on, but it’s going to be very much the Marijuana Election as well.

Even going back to 1998, we had roughly over half a dozen marijuana measures mostly medical marijuana, and one decriminalization measure. This is really the biggest year for marijuana reform in history.

Why California is so vital

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Why is California so vital to the movement? Could we win them all?


I think it’s going to be difficult to win all these initiatives. There’s so many initiatives on the ballot, you know. In every state with an initiative on the ballot, there appears to be more people in favor than opposed. But, as we know, voters can get skittish when it comes to election day, these initiatives are expensive to do, and there’s increasing funding for the opposition.

So I think it’s going to be difficult to win all of these initiatives. What’s clear is that we need to win California and as many of the others as possible. I think California is pivotal for so many reasons it barely needs to be said. It’s the largest state [economy] in the country. It’s a leading State on policy and innovation in many areas. There’s the fact that the size of its market is more than double or triple all the other states that have already legalized marijuana [combined].

There’s two other reasons they don’t get paid enough attention to and one of those is that California legalizing marijuana the way it is,  it’s not just going to resonate across the country affecting other states, and Congress, and the White House. It’s also going to have an international impact. When I talk to allies and political leaders in Mexico, I ask them what’s it going to take to get their policy Reform movement going in their country, the response is almost always the same.

‘Legalize marijuana in California…’

California is the big one. California looms so large in Mexico that reform there would really sort of highlight the absurdity of Mexico continuing with its own war on marijuana while California is right next door taxing and regulating it. And I want to put it out there, doing something in Texas would be tremendous as well but Texas does not have that initiative process.

I think the first states to move marijuana legalization legislatively will be in New England. my organization, drug policy Alliance it’s beginning to lay the groundwork for legalizing marijuana legislatively in New York and New Jersey and New Mexico and helping out in a variety of other states as well but we assume that’s going to take some years.

Prop 64, the Gold Standard

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Is Prop 64 going to be a great achievement or just a great compromise?


The California initiative is, it if passes, going to by leaps and bounds become the gold standard of responsible regulation of marijuana. At this point, I would describe Oregon as the gold standard. But I think the amount of work and research and innovative thinking and consultation with hundreds of incredibly diverse interests was unprecedented.

We knew the initiative was going to be more challenging, because California did not have a statewide medical marijuana regulatory law until just last year. So we knew the challenges were going to be substantial.

First of all, from a public health perspective there are good reasons why this is the first marijuana legalization initiative to be endorsed by the Statewide Medical Association. There’s all sorts of very thoughtful and responsible controls regarding issues with product liability, involving protections against abuse by young people and others. It takes that to a new level.

Secondly, there’s a component of this initiative involved and Environmental Protection including, where a portion of the funds, I think 20% of the funds from the tax revenue are directed. It’s very conscious of the environmental damage that been caused by some illicit growth as well as the need to regulate marijuana responsibly for the future from the environmental perspective.

Thirdly, it recognizes the great diversity of players in the market. So there’s a significant effort both to make sure growers and small players in the industry still have a chance to continue to play a role once marijuana is legalized, yet at the same time recognizing that there’s a need to effectively regulate the bigger entities that will inevitably play a role in this industry is well.

What it all adds up to


What are you most excited about in the initiative?


I’m most excited about the social justice elements. I mean this initiative is the first one, I believe, that says that people cannot be excluded from obtaining a license solely on the basis of having once been convicted of a drug offense, which is very significant.

I think, secondly, the fact that a portion of the revenue up to $50 million dollars a year is directed to communities that have been harmed by the drug war [is great].

Thirdly, the fact is that it has all sorts of provisions that allow for having one’s sentences for marijuana convictions expunged, so it builds on California’s breakthrough sentencing reform initiative, prop 47, passed in 2014, so that’s very significant.

And then lastly, the elements vis-a-vis young people, 60% of the tax revenue is going to be targeted to help young people who are at risk in one way or another. That revenue allocation, I think, is a really thoughtful and beneficial one for the State of California. You put that all together with the rest of it this initiative and when it passes,  it will save tens of millions of dollars on the law enforcement side and earn up to half a billion or a billion dollars a year in tax revenue in the years to come.

It just seems to be a huge step forward for California and to provide a really important model as we move forward in other states thereafter.

We have to keep in mind that a simple majority of the voters in California do not consume marijuana, and so they’re not going to have any sympathies on this vis-a-vis marijuana per se. For them, it’s going to be all about good policy it’s going to be about the merits and acknowledging the reality that marijuana is here to stay, it’s easily accessible, and it’s the choice between a messy and ineffective quasi-prohibitionist policy that we have now, and a more thoughtful legal regulatory policy.

That being said it’s also true what’s happening both in California and around the country and even abroad is a transition from an incredibly dynamic illicit market worth many tens of billions of dollars a year to a legal regulated market worth many tens of billions of dollars a year, and inevitably there going to be winners and losers in that transition.

The State of Marijuana

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Ethan Nadelmann is speaking at the State of Marijuana on the Queen Mary, Long Beach, CA, this September 26th – 27th.

Check out the State of Marijuana for more information about the event and to view their full agenda and speaker list.

Want the full networking experience? Then book a room on the Queen Mary. Click here for full details.

Click here to book your tickets now to automatically save 20% off the regular price. Be sure to use HERB’s unique discount code herbco230.

Do you agree with Ethan Nadelmann about the future of cannabis? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments below.

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