Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance and one of the most recognized speakers in drug policy circles, doesn’t mince words when he gets up to talk at marijuana industry events. “Frankly,” he often says, “I am not interested in meeting most of you.” The only people he wants to talk to, he tells his audiences, are those who are going to make a lot of money in the new marijuana industry in an ethical way and are interested in certain social issues that could make them ideal foot soldiers in the wider struggle against the global war on drugs.

That’s because Nadelmann and DPA aren’t just interested in marijuana legalization -- they’re interested in wider drug policy reform in the United States and beyond.

Ethan Nadelmann Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, speaking in Brazil in 2014. Photo: Drug Policy Alliance

Lately, calls for such reforms have reached a fever pitch, thanks to the upcoming United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem on April 19-21, the first time the U.N. has held a special session on drug policy since 1998. Broad coalitions of nongovernmental organizations are pushing member nations like the United States to advocate for bold changes at the meeting. The latest issue of Harper's Magazine is calling for the legalization of all drugs. And a report released last week by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and The Lancet condemns the global war on drugs for contributing to myriad public health crises.

Meanwhile, targeted efforts are afoot to shift drug policies in the United States. Groups of lawmakers in Maryland and Hawaii are exploring the decriminalization of low-level drug offenses, and Ithaca, New York, is considering opening a heroin injection center in response to the city’s growing drug crisis. “Things have changed enormously. There was no legalization on the horizon when I got involved in this,” said Dave Borden, executive director of, who has been advocating for such reforms since the early 1990s. “At that point, there were tough-on-drugs bills all the time. Today, reforming drug sentences is one of the few partisan issues on Capitol Hill. There’s been a total reversal of politics on this issue, even though the changes are still slow to unfold.”

Marijuana legalization is helping to drive these changes. The fact that four U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis undermines the tough international drug policies the United States has championed for decades, while demonstrating the social impact of such reforms is far from catastrophic. And some marijuana advocates and industry stakeholders are already wading into the global drug policy debate; major marijuana groups such as Marijuana Policy Project and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, plus cannabis business interests such as the ArcView Group and Denver Relief Consulting are among members of an ad hoc coalition of organizations calling for narcotics law reforms in the lead-up to the UNGASS. Not only that, but the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access just submitted a lengthy report to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs outlining potential international medical cannabis reforms.

The growing push for drug law reform beyond marijuana legalization could also lead to divisions among cannabis advocates. Should the U.S. marijuana movement, which has become a political and financial force to be reckoned with, help lead the vanguard in changing drug laws around world? Or should cannabis activists and industry stakeholders stay focused on national marijuana reform, since that could be their best shot at changing the global dialogue on drugs?

“There is no way one cannot want to engage in these UNGASS efforts,” said Allen F. St. Pierre, NORML’s executive director. “But my own political horse sense says it doesn’t equal a hill of beans compared to what is happening on the ground for marijuana right now.”

For some marijuana organizations, the answer is simple: Since their mission is squarely focused on U.S. marijuana legalization, that’s where they need to focus energy and resources. “I think that the work our organization is doing is significantly impacting the international discussion,” said Mason Tvert, MPP's communications director. “But we are not ourselves working on changing drug laws in Spain. We are focused on marijuana policy, and given the history of the United State being a driver of drug policies worldwide, our work is having an impact on the rest of the world.”

What’s left unsaid is that some of the strategies that operations like MPP are using to reform marijuana laws are ill-suited for wider drug policy debates, such as promoting the idea that marijuana is safer than alcohol. That approach has proven a potent tool, but it wouldn’t work so well in other drug-reform efforts, which are focused not on the relative safety of various narcotics but on the notion that prohibition-based laws combating these drugs make the potential harms even worse.

“I agree with Mason that if people realize marijuana is safer than alcohol, they are more likely to legalize it, but that is not going to fly in the broader drug-policy debate,” said Tom Angell, founder of the cannabis advocacy group Marijuana Majority. “If everything the American people have heard about why we should legalize this one drug hinges on its relative safety, it makes the transition to reforming other drug laws problematic.”

Then there’s the fact that while the marijuana industry is growing by leaps and bounds — the market is estimated to top $20 billion in sales by 2020 -- organizations in the scene are still struggling with limited budgets, so they have to make tactical decisions on where to direct their efforts. And right now, for some activists, targeting marijuana legalization might seem like a smarter move than tackling wider drug policy.

For example, while the organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition works to reform all drug laws, a good portion of their work these days is focused on cannabis issues, says executive director Major Neill Franklin, a retired police officer. “If marijuana has all the attention right now, if it’s where the media and conversation is, that is where we are going to be," said Franklin. "We would be fools to not get into that conversation. It helps us move the conversation on heroin, cocaine and other drugs.”

Another major problem is that drug-reform efforts beyond marijuana are still a very hard sell for the American public. Support for cannabis legalization, for example, just hit an all-time high, with 61 percent of Americans in favor of it. On the other hand, while a majority of Americans now support less-stringent narcotics laws like a shift away from mandatory drug sentences, roughly 10 percent or less want drugs such as cocaine, heroin and LSD legalized. That’s less than the percentage of Americans who wanted marijuana legalized in 1970, when the cannabis movement first began gearing up.

“I hope [DPA’s Ethan Nadelmann] lives a very long life,” said St. Pierre at NORML. “He’s laid the groundwork [for wider drug policy reform]. But it will happen much slower than marijuana. These are drugs that at their core are more pharmacologically dangerous. And as a culture, we don’t reaffirm their use. We don’t have heroin magazines or Cocaine Times.”

So for both tactical and financial reasons, many marijuana activists might be wary of engaging in wider narcotic policy reform in this country and beyond. And that could prove to be a liability for those whose activism depends on drawing attention to drug issues beyond marijuana in the United States. “The debate [around marijuana versus general drug policy reform] among international activists was very active when Colorado and Washington first legalized marijuana,” said Joanne Csete, an adjunct public health professor at Columbia University and member of the John Hopkins-Lancet commission that recently released the report on the global drug war. “There were some people dealing with real draconian drug laws in their countries who were worried that marijuana legalization would tick off the box for people. The concern was really all of drug policy would be defined around cannabis. And that would be the end of it.”

But so far, said Csete, those fears have proven unfounded. Instead, she said, “With the international crowd, I see there is a much greater coming together around the idea that, ‘Let’s learn from these legal regulated marijuana markets.’”

And not only is the marijuana movement bolstering drug reform efforts through successful cannabis legalization efforts, but also some activists and entrepreneurs who got their start in marijuana issues are now looking beyond cannabis to other drug reforms. “I think in general the industry is not overall super supportive of drug policy reform because like most industries, there is no economic drive for it that they see in front of them, but I also think that our industry was built from a grassroots activist movement,” said Aaron Justis, CEO of the Buds & Roses dispensary in Los Angeles and board member of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “It’s why we need to set a good example and put drug policy reform in our budgets now, and not just wait until we have extra money to spend on it. By setting a good example, we can push forward against the global war on drugs.”

It’s not just about setting a good example; for some marijuana activists, getting involved in other reform efforts could be key to their political survival. “I ask my board of directors, ‘As we move through these successions of success, as NORML achieves more and more of its mission statement, what do we do next? Do we continue to exist?’” said St. Pierre. “Can you pivot the marijuana movement — once it is successful — into the drug legalization movement?”

Such considerations are why, according to Nadelmann, among the lines in his speeches that garner the most applause at marijuana events are those that call for global drug policy reform. And it’s why, after such speeches, there are always a few individuals who approach him and say, “I am the person you were interested in talking to.”

Yes, the number of those people is usually small, but according to Nadelmann, it’s growing every day.