This is your government on drugs

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It sounds a bit like the answer to one of those old late night “so whatever happened to…” questions. Tommy Chong, 65-year-old grandfather, the lesser-known half of the goofy late-’70s burnout comedy duo Cheech and Chong, was convicted of the illegal sale of drug paraphernalia over the Internet (i.e. he marketed a line of glass bongs). In a bit of priceless comedic irony, the investigation was code-named Operation Pipe Dreams. Chong was sentenced to nine months in prison on the second anniversary of September 11.

 Chong, with no prior arrests, is an unlikely figure to wind up in prison for rarely enforced paraphernalia laws. However, much to his misfortune, he does have one asset that the Bush Administration’s Justice Department covets in spades. He’s got a high profile. Chong’s takedown was meant to send a message to every stoner in America: Dude, you cannot wink at The Man.

 Even as issues like Iraq, gay marriage and the environment command greater attention, the Bush Administration has renewed the war on drugs. In this faith-based administration, the drug war is the ur-“values” war, the blueprint for the conservative kulturkampf. In fact, the drug war is even more ancient than most people realize. Temperance as a movement emerged in the early 1800s when drinking, previously considered healthful and a basic component of life, was identified with social disorder. It quickly became an issue of hearth, home and morality.

 Long before Bill Bennett gambled away his virtue book profits and before Richard Nixon, the first president to proclaim a “war on drugs,” was born, the battle between the Wets and Drys was a defining political issue in America. From the 1880s until the end of prohibition, Americans endured 50 years of pitched battle over the drug, alcohol. It’s worth remembering that the drug war gave us not one but two Constitutional amendments: one banning alcohol, then another un-banning it. Despite alcohol’s decisive win, or rather because of it, the battle moved to other fronts.

 In 2000, no sane person following drug policy would have suggested that within three years Tommy Chong would be imprisoned for selling paraphernalia. The trends of the 1990s were decidedly favorable for reform. Between 1996 and 2000, voters passed 17 reform-oriented ballot initiatives on subjects as diverse as medical marijuana, limiting asset forfeiture abuse and treatment instead of incarceration. New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, a Republican, called for legalization of marijuana and ultimately passed a range of reform measures. According to the Drug Policy Alliance (where this writer was formerly the director of National Affairs), 46 states passed 150 notable drug policy reforms between 1996 and 2002. Countries throughout the world, including close allies such as Britain and Australia, began to experiment with reform, often going much farther than the United States without appearing to suffer especially ill effects.

 As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush looked rather moderate on drug issues. In October of 1999, he answered a question from CNN about medical marijuana by stating that “I believe each state can choose that decision as they so choose.” Later, after his election, he said, “I think a lot of people are coming to the realization that maybe long minimum sentences for first-time users may not be the best way to occupy jail space and/or heal people from their disease.” However, the arc of the drug war under Bush veered toward emphasizing morality and punitive policies within months of his inauguration.

Bush turns Right on drugs

Drug Czar John Walters is perhaps the key element in this equation. In the 1980s, Walters served as an assistant to then-Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, and then as Bennett’s chief of staff at the Office of National Drug Control Policy when Bennett became the first cabinet-level drug czar. Walters left ONDCP in 1993 and became a bitter critic of President Bill Clinton’s drug policies. Prior to his return as ONDCP’s director, he solidified his standing in Republican circles as the President of the Philanthropy Roundtable, a far Right-wing nonprofit funded by the Olin, Scaife and Bradley Foundations and the New Citizenship Project, whose goal is to promote religion in public life. Thus, he is not a neocon but more of an old-line Bill Bennett values maven. Walters is in touch with his inner kulturkampfer.

 Bennett and Walters had long sought platforms from which to force national discussion about character and values. Although the drug czar does not command any actual police forces, it is a cabinet-level position that is not only tasked with creating the national drug strategy but also has some ability to force other cabinet officials to participate in the strategy. Walters was a particularly hard critic of Clinton’s drug policies, co-authoring blistering articles for the Heritage Foundation and the Washington Times accusing Clinton of “abandoning” the war on drugs. The articles call for a renewed war on drugs by using the presidential bully pulpit to get an anti-drug message out, stepped up use of the military for interdiction efforts, highlighting the deterrent effects of harsh mandatory minimum sentences, forcing source countries to reduce export of drugs and use of drug testing in treatment.

 As drug czar, Walters has enacted his calls for a renewed drug war by emphasizing drug use as a moral issue and by “pushing back” against perceived cultural permissiveness. He has used his bully pulpit to force discussion of drugs into a black/white, us-against-them paradigm, a paradigm to which the concept of war is already well suited. As a result, the major drug initiatives of the Bush Administration have taken on a distinctly combative flavor. For example, in the first year following September 11, Walters repeatedly sought to link the drug war to the war on terrorism in taxpayer-funded advertising and elsewhere. Indeed, the administration appears to view drug users as one element of a fifth column, a component of the axis of evil inside the United States.

 As part of his efforts to push back against his perception of a countercultural message favoring drugs, Walters has worked to eliminate any visible manifestation of drug culture. Thus, there can be no relaxation of any drug law for any purpose, including use as medicine. As a result, there is a renewed effort to root out physicians who prescribe higher levels of opiates than some of their peers, despite widespread acknowledgement that the American medical establishment routinely undertreats pain. This may also explain the otherwise puzzling use of precious space in Bush’s State of the Union address in January to discuss steroids. It’s a visible, highly talked-about manifestation of drug-related culture.

 Walters has also made good on his desire to invigorate interdiction efforts overseas. In Colombia, the United States is now giving aid to help the government shoot down airplanes suspected of smuggling drugs. In 2001, this type of shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later policy resulted in the deaths of a missionary and her daughter in Peru. Last year, the United States spent nearly $600 million in military aid in Colombia, including tacit endorsement of paramilitary units, despite the Columbian government’s poor human rights record. Unfortunately, reporting on Colombia is almost nonexistent in the wake of the war in Iraq.

 Similarly, Walters is intent on ending drug policy experimentation in the states, a decidedly nonconservative position. He has sought to roll back popular medical marijuana laws in the nine states that have passed them. He also directly opposed drug reform ballot initiatives in 2002 by traveling to, and directing taxpayer-funded ads to, states where drug reform initiatives are on the ballot. In a similar vein, the Drug Enforcement Administration conducted raids on most of the major medical marijuana cooperatives in California, resulting in the arrests of patients suffering from cystic fibrosis, cancer and other ailments. Finally, this pushback really does seem to be about a fifth column in the culture war. Thus, Tommy Chong isn’t merely a paraphernalia dealer, he is a personification of the ’70s—and think how gratifying it must have been to imprison the ’70s.

 In the meantime, Democrats have found it hard to articulate their interests in drug policy and at ONDCP. Why? The framework of the “drug war” is a trap. If, instead of a “war” it was an “effort to minimize dangers from pharmaceutical, alcohol, nicotine and other psychoactive drugs”—if, say, we emphasized health outcomes instead of “fighting a war”—it is very likely that rather than building jails and prisons we would stress health and education. The United States now has the highest incarceration rate of documented prisoners in the world, outstripping even China and Russia. And nearly half of all those in Federal prisons are serving time for drug crimes. In the meantime, it has been estimated that almost half of those who need treatment for drugs can’t get it.

What the Dems can do

Democrats need to find a way to begin to step out of the trap of the “drug war.” Although all too many Democrats are enthusiastic practitioners of the drug war, some are beginning to reevaluate the issue. For instance, Congressman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) was a confirmed drug warrior in the ’80s, but after years of his Harlem constituents being convicted and sentenced to hard time upstate, he has spoken out about overreliance on incarceration, introducing a series of bills to reduce sentencing disparities in crack cocaine.

 Representative Rangel’s turnaround on sentencing is a good example of how the Democrats can begin to change the conversation. They need to tell the real stories of the real people affected by our drug policies. Kemba Smith is an African-American woman who, stuck in a controlling relationship with her college boyfriend, ended up playing a marginal role in her abuser’s drug crimes. Eventually, despite neither actually using nor selling drugs, she was convicted under conspiracy laws of all the crimes of his gang. Under mandatory minimum laws, she received 24 and a half years, a longer sentence than manslaughter in many jurisdictions. She was eventually freed after six years when President Clinton commuted her sentence in 2000. Women, especially African-American women, are now the fastest growing segment of the prison population. Like Kemba, they often play a minimal role in a conspiracy but have little information to bargain with authorities. African-Americans already know Kemba’s story, but white America doesn’t have a clue. It would be interesting to see her onstage at the Democratic convention.

 When Americans talk about drugs in the context of pain management, they express far more nuanced views than our current dialogue allows. The baby boomers are getting ready to retire just as the DEA has announced a war on oxycontin, vicodin and other drugs used with little harm by millions to control pain. Certainly they will be ready for a more subtle dialogue. For the same reason, medical marijuana garners up to 80 percent approval in some recent polls. Americans intrinsically understand its potential benefits as a last resort in helping people to find relief from the pain of cancer or other diseases.

 In addition, people convicted of drug crimes face a set of invisible punishments beyond prison. They lose access to housing and needs assistance, and they are often forbidden from receiving licenses. In one state, they cannot receive a license to be a hairdresser. A particularly self-defeating law prevents people convicted of drug crimes from receiving Federal grants or even loans for higher education. Education is the most likely indicator that an individual will not recidivate.

 In the meantime, parents are screaming for assistance at the community level. There are parents who have lost their houses and their jobs in the process of trying to get their kids into decent alcohol or drug treatment. HIV is resurgent in America, and intravenous drug users, their spouses and children are at particular risk. Study after study has shown that syringe exchange coupled with education can slow the transmission of HIV. Americans want to do the right thing on HIV. The lack of health care and the lack of substance abuse treatment (including the startling lack of most kinds of treatment other than 12-step treatment) is a national disaster. A clear, consistent, highly prioritized message by Democrats on this topic could work.

 Democrats can also emphasize both the out-of-control costs of the criminal justice system and the failure to prioritize more serious crimes over drugs. They know that Tommy Chong is not a major threat to their kids and they cannot be happy that it will ultimately cost the government at least $18,000 to imprison him and many thousands more to prosecute him. Ultimately it is up to Democrats to free themselves from the straightjacket of John Walters’ war for morality.

 As for Tommy Chong? He’ll get out of prison in July.

William McColl is an advocate and activist in Washington D.C.

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