Ethan Nadelmann Reexamines Adult Drug Use in New Podcast ‘Psychoactive’

Summary: In an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone, Ethan Nadelmann, Drug Policy Alliance Founder and former Executive Director, discusses his new podcast, Psychoactive!

Rolling Stone explains that the new podcast “carves out space for a remarkably liberated adult debate about the universal human drive to alter our consciousness, the myriad substances that enable that journey, and the sometimes terrible consequences of drug abuse.”

Explore Nadelmann’s contributions to drug policy reform and listen to Psychoactive.

There are countless podcasts that strike a contrarian pose or promise a mind-expanding journey; few fulfill the promise. But Psychoactive, a new podcast on drugs hosted by Ethan Nadelmann, delivers — in spades.

Nadelmann founded, and for decades ran, the Drug Policy Alliance, an anti-Drug War nonprofit, before stepping down in 2017. (Rolling Stone profiled Nadelmann as he helped lead the battle to legalize marijuana in the 2013.) After a few years of quiet and reflection, Nadelmann is back with an ambitious project to lead a deep and challenging national conversation about drugs and the human experience. 

A joint production of iHeartMedia and Darren Aronofsky’s production company Protozoa Pictures, Psychoactive carves out space for a remarkably liberated adult debate about the universal human drive to alter our consciousness, the myriad substances that enable that journey, and the sometimes terrible consequences of drug abuse. Listen to one episode and you’ll enter a world where drug use isn’t stigmatized and where adults can grapple with the power and pitfalls of chemical enhancement. (An opening disclaimer hastens to add that the podcast is not encouraging of its listeners to break the law.)

The podcast is powerfully contrarian, but not in a trollish sense. Instead, it genuinely challenges listeners to rethink their priors about drug use and drug abuse and the supposed bright lines between “good drugs” (like pot) and “bad drugs” (like opioids). Early guests will include the acclaimed sex-advice columnist Dan Savage; the former president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos; and the bearded integrative medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil, who began his research career at Harvard in the 1960s studying psychoactive drugs.

For Nadelmann, the podcast offers an expansive platform to explore passions ranging from pot to pain management to the placebo effect. No two episodes are alike, but with the peerlessly experienced host able to go toe-to-toe with guests ranging from politicians to celebrities to academics, every segment is revelatory. “There’s a part of me which has been a teacher all my life,” Nadelmann says, referring to his younger days as a provocative professor at Princeton. “I want to broaden people’s minds.” But equally meaningful, Nadelmann says, “will be if I’m getting responses from people who say: What I heard on your show really helped me in dealing with my own issues with drugs or with pain. That maybe there’s something on this show that will have an impact in their lives in a direct and immediate way.” 

The podcast officially launches July 15th. In an exclusive interview, Rolling Stone spoke to Nadelmann about the genesis of the project, the scope of the podcast, and his latest thinking on the fight to legalize cannabis federally, as well as the looming battles ahead to bring psychedelics into the mainstream.

In one of your first episodes, you talk about the recent legalization of cannabis in New York and sitting outside Central Park and having a joint with a friend, with a cop across the street. I know that’s the culmination of decades of work for you. Was it like a victory lap? 

I very rarely smoke marijuana during the day — I’m mostly an evening, occasional user. But just for the hell of it, it was a weekend afternoon, I was with a good friend, and I said let’s smoke a joint. The Drug Policy Alliance — I’m very proud of my successors — really took the New York law over the goal line this spring. I was especially proud that my home state is the first to say it’s OK to smoke a joint in public anywhere that you can smoke a cigarette.

We were in Central Park and you can’t smoke inside the park. But if you step just outside the wall we can. And so we walk out of the exit, and we’re on Fifth Avenue across the street from Mt. Sinai Hospital. And I sit down and I say, “OK, let’s light up.” And he goes, “There’s a cop car across the street.” And I look at him and I say, “All the more reason, it’s 100 percent legal. This is the meaning of freedom.” So yeah, it was a real feeling of elation and of success. 

The provision was included in the legislation for racial-justice reasons. Because there’s such a history of the cops finding circuitous ways to arrest young men of color. Basically the fear was that if they could still use the smell of a joint or smoking a joint in a public space [as grounds to hassle people], that would obviously be enforced in a racially disproportionate ways, just as marijuana and other drug laws always have been. So, you know, it was particularly sweet to have it happen in my own hometown.

How did this podcast come about?

I stepped down from DPA in May of 2017. I’d been going nonstop for 40 years and just needed time to to chill. I almost didn’t want to talk about drugs for a while — it was just nice not to have the words coming out of my mouth. I would still give a speech here and there. I continue to advise my successors at the Drug Policy Alliance. And I also got very interested in a semi-new issue for me, which is the fight over e-cigarettes and tobacco harm reduction — where I basically think that this push for banning and demonizing e-cigs is going to wind up being a net step-backwards in terms of broader public health goals. 

But it’d been going on three years and I was getting a little itchy to be busier. In June of last year, I got an email from Darren Aronofsky. Darren and I had first met 15, 20 years ago. We were introduced by a common friend — our link was somebody who had been a guide of our [respective] first ayahuasca experience[s]. So my friend is saying you’ve got to meet my buddy Darren. And as I got to know Darren, he would come to the occasional DPA event and we crossed paths occasionally. I hadn’t heard from him in years. But then he sent me an email saying he’s got his production company, Protozoa, that does films and wanted to get into the podcast thing. They were working on a deal with iHeart, so would I be interested in hosting a podcast about psychedelics? And I said I’d love to host a podcast — but I’d rather do it on all drugs, not just psychedelics. And he said, OK, let’s do it.

I love that it was your ayahuasca guy that made this all possible.

It was a friend of mine in California who has been a guide on ayahuasca for many, many people, including many famous people. I’d been friends with him and we’d waited for the right moment. It might have been around 2003, 2004. I and my partner Marsha, we did we did a little thing at his at his place. And then he was saying, you’ve got to meet another friend of mine who I took on a journey. And so that’s how that’s how I met Darren.

You’re a natural at the podcast format, and it’s refreshing to hear you totally unleashed. Having spoken to you when you were the frontman for DPA, you had to be a bit… politic. 

As an executive director, I was pretty free about the way I spoke about things, with a couple of exceptions. In terms of speaking about my own personal drug use, that evolved over time from 25 years ago, when I had to be very discrete, to seven or eight years ago when I’m talking openly about doing psychedelics once a year — comparing it to fasting on Yom Kippur. But I was always careful about avoiding offhanded comments about politicians. I was building a nonpartisan organization. I didn’t want to have people responding negatively to me on my thoughts about other issues. And that’s one area where this is going to be a lot more free.

The episode you did with Dan Savage drew parallels between the struggle for LGBTQ liberation and the fight to de-stigmatize drug users. The argument being that people are naturally driven to alter their consciousness, and this is a universal human experience, a drive that is powerful in a similar way, perhaps, to the sex drive. As a society we’re going through an evolution of embracing the LGBTQ community without stigma. Is there a similar journey that we need to take as a society for people who are drug users? 

With marijuana, we’ve gone through this transformation where people are incredibly open about it now, because the culture has shifted so much. And we’re now seeing in the last couple of years that transition with psychedelics. There’s still some wariness, but I’m stunned. Because of Michael Pollan’s book [2018’s How to Change Your Mind], because the work of MAPS [Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies] and others, there’s a real opening up around that stuff. So I think there is an element of legitimizing those discussions. 

 

Now, I also had on the podcast my friend Carl Hart — the Columbia [University] professor who wrote the book about being a regular heroin user while he was chairing the psychology department at Columbia over the last few years. Carl’s challenging at a much more profound level. Even the drugs that are regarded as most scary, like heroin, cocaine, you know, putting them in perspective. So there is going to be that element of that on the podcast. 

Listening to a few episodes, the overarching argument seems to be against bright lines dividing “good drugs” and “bad drugs,” and focusing more on problematic drug use versus drug use that is enhancing of life. You often don’t hear about the latter, particularly with “scarier” drugs, because our society is so stigmatizing of users that they keep their use closeted.

The line I’ve used for 25 years of my speeches is that there’s never, never been a drug-free society. There’s never going to be a drug-free society. So the challenge is not to try to keep drugs at bay, not to try to build a wall or a moat between drugs and ourselves, or drugs and our children. Rather, the challenge is to learn how to live with drugs so they cause the least possible harm and in some cases the greatest possible good. Right? And that basic frame, how do we learn how to live with drugs — that is a kind of broad frame for this whole show.

 

It’s a pretty easy concept to embrace, abstractly, but it’s hard to put into practice. The reflex of prohibition is so strong in our society.

The area where I think it’s really going to surprise people is this whole battle over e-cigarettes and tobacco harm reduction. A lot of people in the drug policy world instinctively get how harm reduction applies to tobacco as well. But among my political allies, if I look at the legislators and politicians in New York and California, a host of other places, who have been my allies on medical marijuana, marijuana legalization, needle exchange, overdose prevention, decriminalization, you name it. They’re leading the charge on the anti-tobacco-harm-reduction stuff. 

Meaning that you see them on the wrong side of e-cigarettes?

What does it mean to be banning flavored vapes because people are freaked out about adolescents using it? But meanwhile, it could be a lifesaver for older smokers. So I think there’s going to be elements around this tobacco thing that are going to surprise a lot of people. 

 

Take a step back and help me understand where you see the fight to overturn federal marijuana prohibition right now. States are falling like dominoes…

The first thing to say is that the votes are not yet there for full-scale federal legalization, because you still have some Democrats who are reluctant and most Republicans aren’t yet ready to go there. Even the Republican senators from the states that have legalized marijuana still seem reluctant on this. 

The second thing is the extent to which the Democrats in the House now almost uniformly support legalization. You have virtually the entire Democratic caucus in favor of legalizing marijuana, and you have the Senate getting there, getting closer and closer. 

The third thing I’d say is seeing my senator, Chuck Schumer — it almost seems like he told his staff, “Make sure I have at least a half-an-hour on my calendar to talk about marijuana legalization every week.” The fact that Schumer, the Senate majority leader, is spending the time on the issue of marijuana just says that he realized that this is a win-win, win, win, win, win for him. Because he has to worry about a challenge from the left within in New York, because he knows that a majority of Americans — not just Democrats, but even of Republicans — are into it, because it’s now identified as a racial justice issue, because it’s a revenue issue, because it’s a small business issue. The fact that a very, very busy Senate majority leader has decided he wants to devote time to this, I think is very telling. 

The fourth thing I would say is that a lot of the Republicans and some of the Democrats are saying, look: Let’s not fully legalize at the federal level. Let’s just get the federal government out of the way of the states doing it, and resolve the banking issue and the business tax-deduction issue. And I think there’s a fair bit of support for that. Republicans like it from a quote unquote, “states rights” perspective, although that’s to some extent bullshit. They like it because they know there are business people, Republicans, who want it to move forward. 

And the last thing is that, so long as it’s not fully legal federally, but the feds are just allowing the states to do it, it has the advantage in the eyes of many that it keeps the big megacorporations from coming in. It really puts a constraint on big alcohol, big tobacco, big pharma and big consumer goods companies from coming into this. And it means that local businesses are going to have a leg up. It’s almost a form of protectionism for states. Right? And so there’s a lot of people in the marijuana industry who are kind of going, “We’re in no rush for the feds to legalize this thing 100 percent.” Some of them look forward to being bought out by the big guys, but others, you know, prefer the world the way it is, where they’re not going to get arrested. They’re mostly legal. They don’t have to worry about the feds anymore. But the big guys are still staying out. So it’s a complicated issue. 

The other problem, of course, is that Biden was the most conservative of all the Democratic presidential candidates on the marijuana issue. And Kamala Harris has gotten in line — loyal to the president — she’s dropped her push on legalization, which she embraced as a senator. So I think the fact that the White House is not keen is also not helping. 

Psychedelics are having a moment and it’s sort of reminiscent of the early days of the medical marijuana movement. Do you see that playing out in the same pattern? Is that a pathway, or is there going to be a different story with psychedelics going forward? 

It’s different. There were the local measures in Denver and legislation in Oakland and an initiative in [Washington] D.C. and the statewide initiative in Oregon. Right? Which were basically about decriminalizing the possession of plant medicines or mushrooms. So there is an analogy there to the medical marijuana thing. What’s very different, though, is the important role that the FDA and medical research are playing. What you see happening is major commercialization. Two companies, I think, listed on the stock exchange with valuations of over billion dollars. You have all these startups. A lot of these companies are investing in research on trying to come up with elements of the psychedelics evolution that they can profit on. They can’t patent mescaline or psilocybin or LSD. But if they can come up with molecules that are new and a little different, they want to patent them. Well, what are the implications about things like that? 

I imagine you could have built an entire show around the issues of psychedelics, but you’re casting a much wider net with this show.

When I started off with DPA, I could get the leaders of all the sort of subfields together in one room. You know, the person working on mandatory minimums, the person working on marijuana reform, the person working on harm reduction, the person working on psychedelics, the whole thing. As our movement is growing, you know, there’s a huge marijuana industry/world that is basically uninterested in anything else — except maybe the psychedelics if they can make some money from it. There’s a whole booming psychedelic world. I mean, MAPS, the psychedelic organization that Rick Doblin started, it’s probably bigger now than Drug Policy Alliance is. The racial justice piece has now exploded in a really powerful and big way. So one of the questions is: Is there a market out there for people who are going to want to hear one week about the overdose situation; the next week about what’s going on in Colombia or Mexico; the next week about the cutting edge research on psychedelics and addiction; the next week from a celebrity who has had an interesting engagement with this issue; the next week with a professor who has written a book about why black people supported the War on Drugs; the next episode about the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

One thing that I find compelling is that you’re not dealing exclusively with illegal drugs. You’re also challenging your listeners to consider whether coffee is a hard drug, and the role of the mind in pain management, as well as the placebo effect.

We’re looking at the tremendous variations of drug experiences. You can go from the entirely medical spectrum to the entirely recreational mind-expanding spectrum, but there’s a whole lot of that lies in a middle ground as well. Viagra, where you get a prescription for it — but is Viagra medical? And exploring all that, of course, gets you into the issue of placebo. With people all talking about microdosing now, and there’s some very brilliant people writing about microdosing in a beneficial way. But the one double-blind, controlled study out so far suggests it’s no better than placebo. So what’s really going on here? Or, you know, or the whole CBD phenomenon? I want to do some episodes on that. I would also like to get some people on the podcast who are currently (or at least were) drug dealers selling drugs, to get their perspective as retail sellers. What do they know about what they’re selling? When you’re looking at the whole problem with people dying from fentanyl? One of the problems here may be that many of the retail sellers don’t even know that their drugs have fentanyl in it at all. So I want to get into those issues.

And if people think that they’re in a problematic relationship with drugs, what are the ways to de-problematize it — even if you’re unable or unwilling to stop? Or opening up understand that there are other potential ways of using drugs. Many people only associate using MDMA with partying with raves, but I, and many of my generation, came to it as a kind of thing you did with your lover, with your partner, maybe with a small group of friends. 

You’re talking to subject experts, but your own decades of experience, and sometimes long history with your guests, takes these conversations to a deep place.

I was interviewing Patrick Radden Keefe yesterday about his book Empire of Pain, about the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma. And I know a bunch of the characters in the book and I come to this from a very deep engagement on opioids. Or I interviewed the former president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, who won a Nobel Peace Prize. 

 

He went from being a hardliner to a reformer. It was surprising to hear him talk about how, if you’re militaristic, no one’s going to question that leadership style — even if the results are disastrous. And how it’s harder to cultivate a different leadership style, where you’re bringing people to the table, seeking alignment and more beneficial outcomes. That level of self-reflection, I think, speaks to the depth of your relationship with him.

I’ve known him for years. I met with him at his office when he was president. I’ve been down to Bogota ten times. I’m friendly with his son. My conversations are are are oftentimes more personal. There’s other Latin American leaders I know, and ex-presidents, who are on the Global Commission on Drug Policy.  I’m also looking forward to having an episode about the Philippines with some of the people fighting against Duterte. I’m not sure what we’ll do on the Europe scene. We’ll come up with something for Vancouver, because they’re doing cutting-edge stuff about safe supply, allowing people to have access even to heroin or heroin equivalents like hydromorphone. 

Now, part of the tension also is that, obviously, the podcast producers want, and I want, to have big names on it — the kind of celebrity types that will help draw audience because they’re famous. But I also want to have really deep interviews with people who I think are some of the most brilliant in the field, who nobody has ever heard of. And so I think we’re going to find a good medium in that. 

Sounds like listeners will be sampling from an expansive menu.

There’s going to be a first season, 40 episodes roughly. And if you look at the first 12 or so, the only thing that they have in common is that of I’m the host and they have some links to psychoactive drugs. So I think the subjects are just going to get ever more diverse. I don’t know. I mean, fuck it. It’s like rolling the dice, you know? I’m just curious to see where all this goes. My hope, obviously, is that people might tune in because they’re interested in the psychedelics issue, or because they’re interested in the racial justice issue, and will stay and listen to a much broader range of issues, and be pleasantly surprised.