Saying 'No' to the Drug War
Journalist Dan Baum's initial interest into the Drug War came in 1991, when the Drug Enforcement Agency came to Missoula, Mont., and, in his words, "ran wild." Government agents arrested numerous prominent townsfolk for possession of marijuana plants, sending them to federal prison for up to five years and seizing their property. These were busts totally devoid of justice or humanity. "I mean, this was not the Cali cartel," said Baum. "It was bunch of old hippies growing pot for themselves and their friends."So Baum did what he does best -- he started digging into the Drug War. And he was shocked at what he found. "I'd come home from doing research, and I'd tell my wife, 'You're not going to believe what our government can do to you.' I'd go back and check my facts, and it was worse than I thought."Meanwhile, Baum could find no critical writing on the Drug War. "This was going on for almost 30 years, and no one was writing about it," the author said. That's why Baum's most recent book, Smoke and Mirrors (Little Brown and Company, 1997) is easily the definitive historical critique of the government policy known as the Drug War. Starting with its genesis in the Nixon administration, Smoke and Mirrors follows the horrifying and hyperbolic policies of Drug Czars like William Bennett to today's multi-billion-dollar Drug War industries, which ranges from expanding prison systems to urine testing.In Smoke and Mirrors, Baum exposes:* The virtually terrorist activities of governmental agencies such as the DEA in busting harmless drug users.* How predidential administrations use the drug war to target African-Americans, Hispanics and left-wingers for political means.* The disintegration of basic human rights and the obliteration of federal search-and-seizure laws.* The utter condemnation of dissent and of valid medical research showing the real effects of such soft drugs as marijuana.* How drug policy redefines social problems as being the fault of bad individuals instead of the product of poverty, race or institutional despair.* How the Drug War engendered a monumental explosion in prison growth.* How the Drug War effectively criminalizes almost a quarter of the American population. In a 1996 U.S. government survey, 68 million Americans confessed to trying pot, nearly one-quarter of the population. And in the same year, 641,641 marijuana-related arrests were made. Roughly 85 percent of those arrests were for possession.A former Wall Street Journal reporter, Baum lived in Missoula during the DEA raids. It took him three years to report and write Smoke and Mirrors, and his research is numbing in its detail. Among other things, he spoke with all the drug warriors from the past 30 years (except for Bennett), some of whom have turned against current policy and practices.He currently lives in Colorado and is researching an unauthorized biography of the Coors family. He continues to write and speak about the Drug War and the nationwide medical marijuana issue. Part of that included a critically praised series of articles for Rolling Stone on California's medical marijuana issue. Colorado Springs Independent editor Tom Vasich met with Baum in Denver, where they shared beers -- a legal drug -- and conversation about the Drug War.Tom Vasich: What has the Drug War been all about?Dan Baum: The Drug War is not now and never has been about drugs. It's always been a way to talk about things that we don't want to talk about. It has always been about meeting immediate political goals. We could substitute anything in there for drugs -- it's a way to talk about race without really talking about race. It's a way to talk about class without talking about class. It's a way to talk about sex without talking about sex. It's a way to talk about the culture of the '60s without talking about the culture of the '60s.There's also an overarching political agenda -- to redefine what we used to call "social problems" as being the fault of bad individuals. We used to talk about things like crime, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy as being rooted in racism, class issues and institutional despair. Now we say that girls get pregnant in high school and people do drugs because they're bad. Their virtues are out of place. So, as I said in the book, it's no coincidence that William Bennett is the most famous Drug Czar of them all, because he is the apotheosis of that. In many ways, it isn't a drug war. It's a masquerade.TV: But when the Drug War started, it wasn't as much about morals and values as it was about Nixon's political agenda.DB: John Erlichmann told me, "look, Nixon got and held the White House by waging war on two groups: the anti-war left and black people. He couldn't make it illegal to be a leftist, and he couldn't make it illegal to be black, but by identifying hippies with pot and blacks with heroin, we could police those communities and demonize them on the evening news. And we can talk about race and hippidom without having to talk about race and hippidom. We'll talk about heroin and marijuana."TV: Why hasn't the racism of drug enforcement been a bigger issue?DB: Why? We're a fundamentally racist country! Because we love drug policy and how it's enacted. It's the most popular war we ever fought. Even World War II had its isolationists. There are no isolationists in this war. We love it. And we love it precisely because it demonizes the blacks and the Hispanics. We love it precisely because it's an excuse for our fucked-up children, so we don't have to look at our own behavior. We love it because it explains South-Central L.A. and Harlem in a way that takes us off the hook.TV: What do you see as being the most destructive part of the Drug War?DB: There's a lot of them -- there's the money, there's the lives, the civil liberties, you can go on and on. Probably the worst thing has been the closing of the debate on drugs. During the Carter administration, it was decided that it would be the Drug Czar's job to not only reduce drug abuse but to limit the words people can use in talking about this problem. What comes from that is this anti-intellectual jihad where anybody who knows what they're talking about is immediately suspect and pushed aside.And [former Surgeon General] Joycelyn Elders is the climax of that. The nation's highest-ranking health official wasn't allowed to say that maybe there are better ways to protect the public health from drugs other than the type of prohibition we're doing now -- which is really all she said. Fired. It's forbidden speech. So that to me is the worst aspect of it. Because once you've done that, you can't debate your way toward better policies.TV: And because of the Bennetts of the Drug War, there's no debate about the real effects of narcotic use.DB: Well, there is now with the medical marijuana initiative. Drug education since 1978 has been to de-educate the public about drugs. People in California now have said, "for all your bullshit, and all your propaganda, we can actually tell the difference between a 15 year old getting stoned before math class -- which we don't like -- and a cancer patient using this substance under a doctor's care -- which we can accept and can approve of."The medical marijuana initiatives could be the beginning of the end of the Drug War. On the other hand, the drug-policy reform movement is catastrophically inept and historically foolish, lazy, disorganized and has blown it again and again and again. And the medical marijuana initiatives, as exciting as they are, have galvanized drug warriors to fight back. And you're going to see big, big resistance. The medical marijuana initiative lost by a huge, huge margin up in Washington state. It might spread; it might not.TV: What are your views on decriminalizing? Legalizing?DB: I don't even know what those terms mean, to tell you the truth. Hand guns are legal in some cases. In some cases, they're not. Cigarettes are legal in others. Then in some cases, they're not. Alcohol, too.Clearly, putting people in prison for marijuana use is wrong. When I was doing the Rolling Stone piece, I went back to D.C. and interviewed the Drug Czar's flack and the domestic policy advisor. I asked them both this question, and neither of them could answer it. They got totally flummoxed. Here's the question -- "Is it the opinion of the Clinton administration that it is worse for your health to smoke pot or to go to jail?" They couldn't deal with it.TV: Should we be arresting and criminalizing people who sell crack on the street? DB: Maybe, I don't know. I'm not a policy wonk. In fact, there are better ways to cope with all of this. I'm not sure it's worthwhile looking at the volume of drugs entering the country. I think we need to look at how these drugs are used and to what extent they are used destructively. Now, according to the Drug Czar's own numbers, something like 15 percent of the people who use drugs become addicts. The rest don't become addicts. They use drugs they way people use alcohol -- on weekends, after work. And they hold down jobs and keep their families together.TV: Now, those 15 percent -- that's a lot of people. DB: We can deal with that. I don't know exactly how. I'm not a physician; I'm not a cop.TV: If there were any president who could be in a situation to change the focus of the Drug War, it would seem to be Clinton.DB: Oh, he'd be the last. I can't think of a word Bill Clinton would not say more than the word "marijuana." Maybe fellatio. He'd rather not say that.Bob Dole could have done it. If you were a one-issue person and really cared about the Drug War, Dole would have been the smarter vote. It's going to have to be a Nixon-to-China type of thing. It's not going to be a child of the '60s who has admitted to smoking pot.TV: What has happened to people like Dan Quayle, who in the '70s talked about legalizing marijuana and now are adamant drug warriors?DB: Cowardice. These are people with the political convictions of weather veins. The wind blows one way, and they're all pointing in that direction. There's no national leadership. We can't get needle exchanges in this country. Needle exchanges, which most civilized and what we call uncivilized countries already have. It is a proven deterrent of HIV transmission. Everyone knows it makes perfect sense. Bill Clinton knows it makes perfect sense.TV: With the medical marijuana issue, one reason it has been shelved for over two decades is that the Federal Drug Administration refuses to initiate any research on the topic. Why's that?DB: What happens is that physicians and researchers submit protocols for study to the FDA. The FDA occasionally approves them. Then you get to marijuana. There's no legal source of marijuana in the U.S. And then the Feds say we can't allow medical marijuana because there's never been any studies. They forbid the studies and use the lack of studies to come out against medical marijuana.TV: Have there been any private studies?DB: Oh, yeah, in other countries. But this is the United States; we don't take lessons from anybody. We're not going to learn from the rest of the world.Big problem, though, with this medical marijuana issue. From the pharmaceutical way of thinking, there's no such thing as marijuana. Because if the government said marijuana is a prescribable drug, then you ask, what kind of marijuana are you talking about -- 8 percent THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana), 7 percent THC, 6 percent THC? And everybody's pot is different. So there's really no way to approve marijuana without pretty much scrapping the whole drug-approval process we now have.In order for a drug to be smoked, you have to restructure the whole drug-approval process in order to allow marijuana. And I guess [theFDA] makes a pretty good point. Because then people are going to bring in all kinds of herbal stuff [for FDA approval]. And the medical marijuana people say, "yeah, that's right. It's about time."TV: In your book, you talk about THC studies for cancer patients with a drug called Marinol. Those didn't work very well.DB: It works for some people. I'm a former cancer patient. I took Marinol once. It gets you very, very stoned in an unpleasant way. There's some evidence that other chemicals in marijuana smoke ameliorate the effects of THC. We don't really know. This is the thing about a smoked drug. Science may never fully understand how all the 600 chemicals in the smoke act with one another. And it may be that you don't have to get stoned to get the anti-glaucoma qualities. But the fact is, the people who want medical marijuana want marijuana.Even in this issue, it's much bigger than if these people get drugs. The medical marijuana people are potheads. They like pot, and they want pot to be available. And they see this as a way for legalization.TV: So what, then, is the medical marijuana issue all about?DB: This is a power issue. This is a political issue. This is not a scientific, intellectual issue. There are powerful interests who depend on marijuana prohibition remaining the way it is. Those who want to change [prohibition policy] have to get that power away from those powerful interests.For example, the urine-testing industry doesn't want to see a change with marijuana laws. They make a fortune testing people.TV: And the prison industry.DB: Of course. You know, in the state of California, one out of every three state employees works for department of corrections. And the prison guards' union is the biggest contributor to political campaigns by a factor of two. They don't want to see a legalization of marijuana laws. So many people go to jail for marijuana.I talk to a lot of marijuana-issue groups, and I berate them all the time for a fundamentally apolitical attitude and for not understanding that this is a political battle. They have to do the political work, but they won't. They won't cut their hair and put on clean clothes, knock on doors and meet people where they live. Do the hard, ugly grassroots politicking that's going to have to be done. The Christian Coalition does that. The right does that very well. And you have to give them credit for that. They're very good at mobilizing people to become political.The drug reform movement is not. But they think they're right, and they love nothing better than getting together and telling each other how right they are. The fact is that a lot of people are drug-policy reformists because they like to smoke pot.TV: You said earlier that the Drug War is the most popular war ever. People love it. How can it be beaten?DB: In 1933, the country made a cost-benefit analysis about alcohol prohibition and determined that the corruption and the violence attendant to alcohol prohibition was not worth the improvement in public health.Since my book came out, I've gotten a lot more positive response from conservatives than I have from liberals. The Drug War consists of everything Newt Gingrich hates -- big government, intrusive government, federal bureaucracy sustaining itself for years and years with programs that don't work. We just scrapped a 60-year system of welfare entitlements because we said it was too expensive to work. The Drug War costs more than welfare used to cost. And obviously it isn't working."Smoke and Mirrors ExcerptReporting from the heart of the Drug War An excerpt from Dan Baum's "Smoke and Mirrors""Users are bums," declared the Reader's Digest in an article with that title in June 1989, "whether they are doorway junkies, trendy weekend consumers or once-a-month dabblers." A month later, America's biggest-selling magazine was back with another drug article, saying that because attacking "the supply side of the drug crisis has failed miserably É let's get tough with the drug users!"Police in Hudson, N.H., got tough with a drug user on August 3. Bruce Lavoie was [Drug Czar] William Bennett's worst nightmare, an occasional smoker of marijuana with a job, an intact marriage, three small children and no criminal record. On a tip that Lavoie was dealing drugs, the Hudson Police conducted a "no-knock" surprise search at 5 o'clock in the morning with guns drawn. Sergeant Stephen Burke was so excited kicking in the door that his pistol went off in his hand. The shot and the sound of doors and windows exploding inward jolted the family out of bed. They rushed into the hall, and Sergeant Burke fired his gun again, killing the 34-year-old Lavoie as his wife and children looked on. Then the police held their search, which turned up no weapons and only a few joints worth of marijuana.With politicians, polls, the press and the Office of National Drug Control Policy braying in unison, police everywhere got "tough on users." Arizona's state police imported nine tons of marijuana in 1989 to sell so they could get tough on users by selling it to them and then clapping on the handcuffs. In the course of the operation, seven tons of it disappeared into the streets. "That's no small change," a U.S. Customs Service spokeswoman told the Arizona Republic. "That's a major organization." The DEA paid a handsome informant $73,000 to seduce innocent women into drug deals so they could be busted. Eighteen women, most of them with no criminal record, were tricked into prison after the informant promised them love and marriage in return for "one little favor."Kalamazoo, Mich.; Alexandria, Va.; and Washington, D.C., got tough on users by making it a crime to "loiter" in a "recognized drug-trafficking area." Such areas were "recognized" only in African-American parts of town, so the effect was to make it illegal for black people to hang out in their own neighborhoods. In Boston any "known drug dealers or gang members who in any way cause fear in the community" -- which was limited to three nonwhite districts -- would be summarily searched on sight. One judge called the policy "a proclamation of martial law É for a narrow class of people -- young blacks." Three weeks later, a Boston patrolman pointed his pistol at 30-year-old Rolando Carr as he walked with some friends to a corner store in the black neighborhood of Dorchester. The officer ordered Carr to put his hands on a nearby wall, and as Carr did so the officer shot him in the lower back. "Get up," the officer told him. Carr couldn't, and as he lay bleeding the officer frisked him, finding no weapon, no drugs, no evidence of criminal activity.Bennett chalked up such excesses to "the overriding spirit and energy of our front-line drug enforcement officers -- which we should be extremely reluctant to restrict within formal and arbitrary lines." FBI director William Sessions agreed that drugs are such "awesome threats" that the nation must "strike a new balance between order and individual liberties." Admiral William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Atlanta Constitution that to pursue the War on Drugs, "you're probably going to have to infringe some human rights." The public was willing. Sixty-two percent of those polled in 1989 said they would "give up some freedoms" to fight drug abuse. -- Used by permission from Little, Brown and CompanySidebar OneMedical MarijuanaIt passed in California and Arizona, failed in Washington. And now the super-controversial medical marijuana issue will most likely find itself on the November ballots of eight more states, Colorado included.The Colorado medical marijuana initiative is the product of Coloradans for Medical Rights, a Denver-based group that has written the ballot language and will be seeking the 58,000 signatures necessary to get it on the November ballot.Unlike California's medical marijuana initiative, which was purposefully vague, the one proposed for Colorado is very exact on how marijuana is to be used. The initiative identifies what debilitating medical conditions marijuana can be used for, such as cancer, glaucoma or HIV treatment.Patients being treated for these identified conditions must receive approval from their physicians for the use of marijuana. Then, patients must apply for a registry identification card from the state which protects them, in a sense, from being arrested for possession.The initiative also places limits on how much marijuana registered patients can possess -- no more than two ounces of a usable form of marijuana and no more than six plants, with three or fewer being mature."This is a big departure from California's law," said Luther Symons, a political consultant for Coloradans for Medical Rights, "because it defines which conditions qualify a person to use marijuana and the specific amounts they can possess."Of course, the sober facts of medical marijuana will be obliterated in the Drug War hyperbole that will blossom during the campaign. To most opponents and some supporters, medical marijuana means legalizing pot, which, according to Symons, is why Washington-state initiative was so soundly trounced."The lesson we've learned from Washington is that it's about the message," he said. "We have to communicate that this is medical issue, not a legalization issue."