This story is part of a series of profiles, The CannaInfluencers: The people shaping the cannabis industry in the Garden State. Written by NJ Cannabis Insider reporters, the profiles will publish in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 election, when New Jersey voters will decide whether to legalize recreational, adult-use cannabis.
Dr. David Nathan has become a leading voice in the medical community’s conversations around drug policy reform after forming Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. And he’ll admit, he grew up and even went to college without questioning laws that banned drugs.
“I had grown up as a drug warrior, just like everybody else,” Nathan, 52, said. “It was one of the few true epiphanies in my life that I realized the Drug War made no sense.”
That came early on during his enrollment in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania during the early 1990s. While editing an ethics journal, he read an article that highlighted the futility or prohibition and its disproportionate impact on minorities.
But sentiment evaded many doctors at the time, who neglected it in conversations about health and drugs. Nathan held onto the knowledge and thought about it for nearly two decades, but said he became “sufficiently incensed” 10 years ago after hearing from yet another patient in his psychiatry practice who faced hurdles not from the harms of cannabis use, but from an arrest for it.
So Nathan wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, thinking he would add to a growing conversation. But he soon realized he had done more to start the conversation than join an existing one.
“I felt moved to speak out on the issue, even though I knew that doing so could lead other doctors to really shun me for my point of view,” he said. “I quickly found out I was way out in front on this issue.”
It’s not that he thinks marijuana use carries no risks — Nathan just believes prohibition ravages communities and upends lives far more often and severely than the drug itself does. And as a doctor, he said, it makes sense to support regulating substances and allowing more research.
In 2014 he joined the steering committee of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform. The group held some of its earliest meetings in Nathan’s dining room.
“David was one of the few medical voices in New Jersey talking about a public health need for marijuana legalization,” said Udi Ofer, the deputy national political director of the ACLU and former head of the ACLU-NJ. When the ACLU first began working with what would become NJUMR, they sought out an expert on public health.
“There wasn’t a lot of competition,” Ofer said. “He was really at the forefront.”
After bringing legitimacy from a medical perspective to the movement, Nathan began the national spinoff, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation in 2015. About 50 doctors from around the country joined on in the start by signing a founding document.
Since, they’ve gone on to testify in 20 some states, with Nathan himself traveling to nearly 10 to speak, as well as appearing before Congress to give his take on cannabis and the impact on public health.
“Here was someone who just genuinely believed that this was the right thing to do, and was willing to put up his time, his professional reputation, and his own money,” Ofer said.
Nathan comes from a perspective of understanding those who face adversity. Born without an ear due to a rare condition called microtia, he underwent several surgeries as a child, and still deals with significant hearing loss.
“It has made my life more difficult, but it has also strengthened my resolve and tenaciousness on issues of inequality,” he said.
Nathan studied at Princeton University before attending medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. He completed his medical residency at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard University in Belmont, Massachusetts.
He lives in Princeton with his wife Karen, who works in college admissions counseling, his son Eli, a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, and his daughter Sophie, a junior at Princeton High School. He serves as a clinical associate professor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and has been recognized as a distinguished fellow by the American Psychiatric Association.
In his spare time, Nathan studies history and science and has researched and written on several topics. His passion for animation and research led him to reconstruct a lost encore scene from a 1914 film, “Gertie the Dinosaur.” He worked with another animation historian to reconstruct the film, which premiered at the 2018 Annecy Film Festival in France.
Some may think Nathan jumped into a soon-to-be booming cannabis industry for the money, but he says the opposite is true. To advocate for legalization, he’s had to cut back on patients in his private practice, pushing him and his family to make sacrifices so he can continue his advocacy.
But Nathan said he could not sit idle knowing he had knowledge and a voice that could help those impacted by prohibition.
“If you have the ability to make a change like that, and your voice is actually carrying for some distance, you kind of have a moral obligation to do something about that,” he said.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.