Protesters Say Time for Government to Halt WoDs

Protesters Say Time for Government to Halt WoDs
Posted by FoM on January 23, 2000 at 17:00:11 PT
By Mark Sauer, Staff Writer 
Source: Union-Tribune
In 1932, Democratic presidential challenger Franklin D. Roosevelt called for an end to Prohibition, the ban on alcohol that Republican President Herbert Hoover embraced as "the noble experiment." FDR swept into office declaring "happy days are here again" and presided over the repeal of Prohibition as the noble experiment was declared an utter failure. Arguments are being made now across the political spectrum that America's war on drugs -- the federal prohibition on marijuana and other illicit substances -- has proved similarly disastrous. 
As with Prohibition, critics decry a lucrative black market run by ruthless gangsters, widespread police corruption, an explosion in the prison population, erosion of civil liberties and continued drug use as evidence that the drug war has failed. Could history repeat itself this election year? With hundreds of thousands of Americans locked up on drug offenses and tens of billions of tax dollars spent annually on the drug war, a burgeoning anti-war movement is screaming "enough!" The question is whether movement leaders, who call the drug war our "social Vietnam," are yet loud enough to be heard. They are cheered by new challenges to drug prohibition by two prominent Republicans, by the success of the medical-marijuana movement and by evidence of a greater awareness of the war's costs and consequences. "Eventually, the failure of the drug war will cause its own demise," said Eric E. Sterling, who from 1979 to 1989 was counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, which was principally responsible for anti-drug legislation. "All kinds of pressure is being exerted on the current (anti-drug) strategy. Even Gen. (Barry) McCaffrey (President Clinton's drug czar), has said the drug war is not working. "But as long as this is considered an electrified third rail -- suicide for politicians -- there will be no rational debate on drug policy," added Sterling, now president of the nonprofit Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. Adam J. Smith, associate director of the Internet-based Drug Reform Coordination Network, hopes for some kind of national drug-war debate in the 2000 campaign. He is not optimistic. "But by the next election cycle, we may well see at least one major presidential candidate, and many others in the states, running on a drug-law-reform platform," Smith said. Dan Baum, author of "The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure" (Little Brown; 1996) said that like Vietnam at its late-'60s peak, the drug war is vast, complex and highly resistant to a swift armistice. "We have allowed this to grow into too big a monster and we ain't going to kill it in one political season," Baum said. Baum's drug-war monster can be measured in several ways: In 1980, the federal government spent about $1 billion on drug control and 50,000 Americans were incarcerated on the federal, state and local levels for drug offenses. Today, the federal drug-war budget is nearly $18 billion (an estimated $20 billion is spent by state and local governments) and about 400,000 Americans are behind bars for nonviolent, drug-law violations. In 1998, 1.6 million Americans were arrested for drug violations, compared with 581,000 in 1980. Drug arrests account for about one-third of all arrests in America, more than any other category of crime, according to the FBI. The number of women in state and federal prisons increased from 12,300 in 1980 to 82,800 in 1997, a rise of 573 percent. Drug offenses accounted for one-half of the state incarcerations. African-Americans are eight times more likely to be prosecuted and incarcerated than whites arrested for drug-law violations. By Feb. 15, 2 million Americans will be behind bars, nearly a tenfold increase in the inmate population in a quarter-century. Because of the drug war and the get-tough-on-crime climate that spawned it, the anti-war movement says the land of the free has become the world's largest gulag. Critics from both the right and left contend that the war on drugs has failed in its mission, but succeeded in damaging Constitutional protections against illegal search and seizure, cruel and unusual punishment and the right to privacy. People aren't locked up for abusing alcohol, they say, why should they be jailed for using or abusing drugs? But the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, headed by McCaffrey, counters that "the first duty of government is to provide security for citizens." "Drug abuse, drug trafficking and their consequences destroy personal liberty and the well-being of communities," according to the drug czar's office. "Drug abuse spawns global syndicates and bankrolls those who sell drugs to young people. "No person or group is immune. ... When the nation fails to pay attention and guard against it, drug use tends to spread." War resisters In 1930, Morris Sheppard, a Texas congressman and a sponsor of the amendment banning alcohol, made this prediction: "There is as much chance of repealing the 18th Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail." Obviously, public opinion can quickly change. But the debate 70 years ago over Prohibition seems more straightforward than issues and questions surrounding the war on drugs. One reason is the nature of illicit drugs and Americans' attitudes toward them. The federal government, in extensive anti-drug campaigns, has worked hard to lump all illegal drugs together. But many Americans -- especially the 75 million adults who have admitted use of marijuana -- distinguish between "hard" and "soft" drugs. And many distinguish between drug use and drug abuse. Polls show that most people are more skeptical about easing the prohibition of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other "hard" drugs than they are about marijuana. Seven states, California being the first, have passed laws allowing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes (though it remains illegal under federal law). Similar initiatives, along with proposals to reform mandatory-sentencing laws for marijuana and other drug traffickers, are headed for the ballot in several more states this year. And Alaska voters are expected to consider a proposal to legalize marijuana in that state. Despite such reform efforts regarding marijuana, political observers say the broader drug war has yet to catch fire as a mainstream political issue. "Nothing I've seen in the polling or focus groups suggests to me that the American public is willing to drastically change the way government policy deals with drug use, particularly with respect to interdiction," said Garry South, a Democratic political consultant and campaign director for Gov. Gray Davis in 1998. "The media may shine a light on this issue in the 2000 campaign. But it's hard to expect political candidates to go out on a limb when there is not broad-based support for it." Two politicians, both of them Republicans, have gone out on a limb, however. Gary Johnson, the lame-duck governor of New Mexico, shocked members of both parties last fall when he blasted the drug war on a speaking tour, calling for the legalization not just of marijuana, but also of cocaine and heroin. Johnson, a 46-year-old triathlete and father of two who admits to having used marijuana and cocaine in college, insists he is against drugs, that drugs "are a bad choice, they're a handicap," and he counsels kids against their use. But Johnson, now a teetotaller, said locking up people for using drugs is morally wrong, terribly costly and ineffective. "Legalization means we educate, regulate, tax and control the estimated $400 billion a year drug industry," he said in a recent speech. Meanwhile in California, Tom Campbell, the leading GOP candidate to challenge Diane Feinstein for her U.S. Senate seat this fall, is calling for a different approach. Instead of overhauling current policies and laws, Campbell proposes that localities be allowed to experiment with plans that would make drugs available for addicts at government facilities. The current U.S. congressman from San Jose also favors providing intravenous users with clean needles to stop the spread of AIDS and other diseases. Campbell said his idea, based on successful programs in Europe, is to eliminate the profit incentive for drug dealers while educating addicts on the danger of drug use and offering them treatment. "I've taken a lot of criticism," Campbell said. "But the present system is not working and I believe it is the responsibility of someone who wants to lead to present new ideas. "If all you do is repeat what's being done when it isn't working, you are hardly a leader." Unlikely coalition Political scientists say that because of its liberal roots, the Democratic Party has long been vulnerable to charges of being "soft" on crime in general and drugs in particular. Democrats have worked hard in recent years to overcome that image, as demonstrated by President Clinton's dramatic escalation of the drug war -- his current anti-drug budget is six times that of the Bush administration. For this reason, anti-war leaders say, it will probably take a Republican to launch a national debate on the drug war, much as it took avowed anti-communist Richard Nixon to open the door to China. "It has to come from the Republicans, that's the key," said Smith of the Drug Reform Coordination Network. "But the interesting thing is drug-war issues touch so many constituencies. Libertarians and hard-core conservatives look at it and say it's not the government's business; fiscal conservatives are shocked at the costs; liberals are upset over the exploding prison population; blacks are angry that minorities are heavily targeted," Smith said. "People who are not philosophically aligned on anything else can agree on this." The anti-war movement is basically split into two camps: Those who want to legalize all drugs and strictly control their sale; and those wishing for reform of drug policy and laws by shifting priorities from arrest and prosecution to treatment and education. This latter "harm-reduction" wing appears to enjoy a much broader base of support, with hundreds of Internet sites devoted to position papers, essays, news roundups, commentary from drug prisoners, research reports, etc., urging politicians and the public to reassess the drug war's consequences. Among the most visible proponents of harm-reduction is Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center, a drug-policy institute financed by billionaire George Soros with offices in New York and San Francisco. "The idea that the drug war has failed and we need to reform is becoming the new conventional wisdom, there's plenty of evidence of that," Nadelmann said. "But there is a long way to go. "The entire drug-policy reform movement in this country spent less than $15 million getting our message out in 1998, less in '99 and will spend a bit more this year," he added. "We're getting outspent by, what, a hundred to 1? A thousand to 1?" The movement's relatively meager funds, Nadelmann said, should be directed at scuttling the "zero tolerance" rhetoric, though he agrees that anyone endangering lives by driving under the influence should be prosecuted to the fullest. Nadelmann would replace the notion of "a drug-free America" with the idea that drugs are permanent in our society and ways must be found to live with them so they cause the least possible harm and greatest possible benefit. Harm reduction, he said, involves decriminalizing marijuana and taxing and regulating it; providing "honest and effective drug education rather than feel-good programs like DARE"; not treating adults who sell drugs to other adults as "predatory criminals"; and treating drug abuse as a public-health problem rather than a criminal-justice problem. Child protection issue One of the anti-war movement's biggest hurdles is the government's argument that if prohibition ended children would suffer. "Drug warriors understand the power of PR. They've convinced the public that prohibition is the thin blue line protecting children from becoming zombies," said Smith, who added that experiences running a teen center in New York inspired him to oppose the war. "The truth is if average middle-class parents wanted to buy marijuana now, they'd do well to ask their teen-age kids. But kids can't get Demerol or other pharmaceuticals. "Under prohibition, the decision of whether drugs are sold to your 15-year-old is not in the hands of a physician, pharmacist or parent, but a drug dealer. We have yet to get that message out." Sterling, the former congressional aide, said fear "is the politicians' favorite drug and they are very good at exploiting it, especially when it comes to issues involving children. And they are afraid themselves." "On every other issue, there are at least a couple of sides. But you run the real risk of offending voters and contributors when you take a position against the drug war." In order to address voters' fears and the child-protection issue, leaders in the anti-war movement say that eventually they have to go beyond attacking the negative consequences of drug prohibition and provide alternatives to the drug war. "You can't beat something with nothing," Sterling said. "To say the war on drugs is a failure and this is the end of the war, that's not going to happen. But the problem exceeds my ability to describe a solution. I say we need to be willing to experiment." But others, notably Nadelmann, offer myriad reform proposals in speeches, op-ed pieces and seminars. "This is like other American political and social movements -- women's suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, Prohibition itself," Nadelmann said. "You start by using facts to educate people, you use science, common sense. It takes time to build consensus. "My gut feeling is that when the phrase 'drug prohibition' appears in a news story rather than in an op-ed piece in the newspaper, we will take a big step forward. "People can then make the analytical leap toward a more sensible policy." Published: January 16, 2000 Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co. Related Articles & Web Site:The Lindesmith Center In New Mexico - 1/23/2000
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Comment #1 posted by J Christen-Mitchell on January 24, 2000 at 05:49:02 PT:
One Thing Only
Reason and compassion will not prompt the masses to do the right thing. Without a real leader, and when have we seen one in a generation, the status quo will continue. The death of alcohol prohibition was the depression. Without prosperity, the fear mongers, cannot sustain the suppression of freedom of choice of medications. At a cost of 65 Billion dollars (fed, state and prison costs), until it hurts the pocketbook, it will make no sense to the persecuters. Or, we can see if the Feinstein/Hatched Anti-Freedom Proliferation Acts' resultant censorship and bookburning rings a bell with Americans. 
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