Cover Art by Ethan Nadelmann

Ethan Nadelmann’s New PSYCHOACTIVE Podcast is a Trip

On his new podcast, PSYCHOACTIVE, Ethan Nadelmann, who founded the Drug Policy Alliance, doesn’t want to be boring.

From the first two episodes, it’s clear there’s nothing tedious about his new show — at least for anyone interested in the connection between human beings and drugs. The first is a wide-ranging conversation with Andrew Weil, who is probably best-known for his books about integrative medicine but who was on the forefront of those questioning US policies with his earlier books beginning with “The Natural Mind” back when Richard Nixon declared a ‘war on drugs.’ And he spends an hour talking about the finer points of the disparities in police enforcement of drug laws with Yale professor and author James Forman, who won the Pulitzer Prize for the book “Locking Up Our Own,” on that very subject.

PSYCHOACTIVE seems like a natural for Nadelmann, who has spent decades trying to debunk the concepts behind the war on people the nation has waged for even more decades. He has been called “America’s Drug Czar” by many journalists, is well-known for a TED talk he gave in 2014, and he is always trying to keep the conversation alive about how America’s approach has been doomed from the beginning because drug usage should have never become a criminal issue.

As he explains in an introductory episode, he got involved initially because he saw drug usage as a basic human right.

“The reason why some drugs were legal and some drugs were illegal, I learned early on, had little to do with the relative harms of different drugs but almost everything to do with the people who used and were perceived to use particular drugs.”

Ethan Nadelmann

“I believe that no one deserves to be punished or discriminated against or amongst, based solely on the substance that they choose to put in their body. I believe that every human being is inherently sovereign over one’s own mind and body,” he said.

The idea of doing a podcast first entered his mind when Nadelmann took a break after 23 years with the Drug Policy Alliance, the national organization he founded that has been at the forefront of legalization measures across the country. “When I stopped running the DPA four years ago, I said I might like to try a podcast. It would keep me engaged, but there’s no responsibility to other people,” Nadelmann tells The News Station. “Three years later, the pandemic has started. I was getting restless and had one of those fortuitous moments when Darren sent me an email and told me he was thinking of trying the podcast business, and how about me doing one on psychedelics? ‘I don’t want to do one just on psychedelics,’ I said. I want to do a podcast on all drugs.’”

Darren is filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, and PSYCHOACTIVE operates under the canopy of his Protozoa Pictures in association with iHeartMedia. The first season of PSYCHOACTIVE includes a roster of people that cover a wide variety of opinions of the current situation on drugs in America.

Juan Manuel Santos, who won the Nobel Prize for his efforts to stop the civil war while president of Columbia, will be on a future show. “I think the next episode is with Dan Savage, that was a fun one,” Nadlemann says. (It was just released Wednesday.) “And there’s Patrick Radden Keefe, the guy who wrote the book on the Sackler family. Kate Nicholson started the National Pain Advocacy Center, an organization to advocate on behalf of people using opioids, and Melissa Moore helped lead the effort to legalize cannabis in New York.”

He even persuaded Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who was gracious enough to sit down with Nadelmann even though he has been a major critic over the years. That one alone should be fascinating. “We’re hoping a wide variety of people will keep it interesting,” he says. “We won’t be talking just about policy, but about the use of drugs in culture, in psychology and in markets.”

Nadelmann began as an academic but made the transition to political activism as he spearheaded the ballot initiative campaigns to legalize marijuana in the late 1990s. “Part of the reason we did that was we had done polling where Americans thought we had gone too far with the drug war. The other one was that people who had drug problems should be given treatment instead of incarceration.”

His talk with Weil, whose books influenced him like many others and who has become a friend, is characteristic of Nadelmann’s inquisitive, probing interview style and willingness to talk about anything. They discuss their initial enthusiasm about drug legalization and how their views on drug use have changed over the years.

Another reason for PSYCHOACTIVE is to counter the world of disinformation about drug use often amplified by media, who tend to concentrate on the negative rather than the positive side of drug use. Never has there been a society that didn’t have some kind of drug usage by its citizens, he says.

“One thing about drug use is that people who use drugs in moderation keep that secret,” he says. “When it comes to marijuana use in adolescence, everybody knows the bad guys. But when the valedictorian is using it, he is going to be discreet. Imagine you’re a journalist for a newspaper, and your editor says he wants you to write a story about alcohol. You go to 12-step programs and drunk bars and write a devastating portrait. But what about those using alcohol responsibly? Are there people who are still leading their lives normally? What’s the difference between meth and Adderall? Nobody asks those sorts of questions. We have to have a fuller understanding of drug use.”

He said falsehoods and inaccuracies have always been with us. As an example, he talks about the fact that most of the American soldiers who used heroin in Vietnam did not get re-addicted when they returned from the war. “But we always heard about the ones who were in trouble. There’s a whole world of people who were using heroin as part of their lives,” he says. “That’s part of the reality of drug use in America. We will focus on things to understand how people use drugs. It helps to know the hows and why. Hopefully, people will learn things they didn’t know before.”

Nadelmann is encouraged by how cities and municipalities are rethinking their approach to psychedelics and sees a physician/patient model in the future. “It’s not going to be like the marijuana and alcohol mode,” he says. “Unlike marijuana, there is a concern about usage — we don’t want it to explode in use. And there are concerns around commercialization. Private funding has allowed us to finally see some openness in research. That’s the upside.” The downside, he adds, is when companies seek larger profits, they can forget their original motivation.

Nadelmann is excited about the current interest in psychedelics being used in certain mental health situations. “One track is the fascinating research at universities with money not supplied by the government. They’re coming up with some amazing findings.” It’s possible, he says, that MDMA, for instance, might be legalized for certain conditions in the near future.

He is looking to entice artists, celebrities and musicians to PSYCHOACTIVE. He will be talking to Dr. Carl Hart, whose recent book, “Drug Use for Adults,” explains why decriminalization of all drugs is a more sensible approach and less expensive than our current approach. And he is looking to talk soon with Michael Pollan, the popular food writer whose book, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence,” is a deep dive into psychedelics and mental health, and whose latest, “This is Your Mind on Plants,” looks at three drugs: poppies, caffeine and mescaline. Nadelmann also hopes to talk with people involved in drug treatment and law enforcement. 

“I want to talk to interesting people and have conversations that people are gonna want to listen to and not flip the channel.” Nadelmann says. And he’s certainly not averse to hearing something that might change his or his guests’ minds.

“The most meaningful response will be ones that come from something they heard, and it helped them. I’m hoping that it will be personally beneficial in their lives. And I’m hoping some of the guests, as I challenge them, might change their views, too.”

The PSYCHOACTIVE podcast with Ethan Nadelmann can be found here.

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