Bust the Boom for Drug War Hypocrisy

When boomers did it, promiscuity was "free love," breaking the law was "questioning authority" and getting high was "mind expansion." But if their children dare experiment, it's off to boot camp or worse.

As a person born in the '60s, I find the boomers' enthusiasm for the drug war unnerving: at least their parents didn't know better. Why did "let it be" become "let 'em rot" and freedom just another name for something kids shouldn't have? How did getting zonked yield to zero tolerance?

Even more bafflingly, why does it seem that many boomers privately know harsh drug policies are wrong (and that youthful marijuana smoking is less dangerous to most kids' future than being expelled from school or jailed as punishment for doing so is), but refuse to speak publicly?

One reason may be media bias. The '80s and early '90s saw thousands of stories that presented only the law enforcement perspective. In fact, at a national meeting of top newspaper editors in 1990, most agreed that objectivity should be set aside to fight drugs. As Dan Baum reported in his book, "Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure" (Little, Brown, 1996), Katherine Graham was in a minority when she argued for skeptical coverage. Most editors agreed instead with an editor who said, "It's our duty to get involved. I suggest it's time to quit polishing our halo of detachment."

That halo was long gone by the time ABC decided to devote the network to a "March Against Drugs" in 1997. Most of the news division complied quietly (Nightline's Ted Koppel was a notable exception).

And though there was outrage when Dan Forbes revealed in Salon in January 2001 that networks and newspapers had been paid for favorable drug war coverage and TV storylines as part of the government's anti-drug media campaign, this provision had actually been announced in Congress two years earlier but played only in the back pages. Few recognized that taking government money to air anti-drug propaganda was news since so many already did it for free.

A study published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly suggests the danger of such pervasive bias. It found that biased coverage doesn't influence people's own opinions about issues -- but it does influence their perceptions about what other people think. This could account for the fear many people seem to have of expressing dissenting views: everyone thinks that everyone else supports the status quo.

It may also explain why, in private, many big name media people will tell me they oppose the drug war and admit their own harmless drug use -- but refuse to go on the record.

Boomers are actually conformists, not rebels, says feminist Susan Brownmiller, author of "In Our Time" (Dial, 1999). She believes that much of the backlash comes from those who never favored radical freedom in the first place. "They went along," she says, because it was fashionable. "But they were never comfortable with it."

Mark Kleiman, professor of policy studies at UCLA, suggests that boomers see drugs the way they see sunbathing. "No one says its hypocritical for a tanning champion of the '60s to use sunscreen now -- we know better," he says.

Of course, our "knowing better" about marijuana is the result of a massive propaganda campaign -- and the silence of those who know it's false -- rather than new research. Despite an exhaustive search for harm, marijuana has not proved to be particularly dangerous. Driving stoned is safer than driving drunk, according to several studies. Marijuana addiction is rare -- despite pot being the most commonly used illicit drug, with 59 percent of all current users taking no other illicit drug.

There also isn't a single treatment facility in the U.S. devoted just to cannabis. The majority of people in drug programs for pot were mandated by courts, not evaluated as addicts. Alcohol is causally linked to violence (including rape); pot is not. Marijuana isn't a "gateway" to harder drugs, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Even the best shot -- lung cancer-- hasn't materialized in increased mortality statistics amongst pot smokers, according to a large study by the Kaiser foundation.

Kleiman thinks self-loathing tinges the insistence on toughness. "I don't know if there's ever been such a self-hating generation," he says. "Someone has to be punished for their bad behavior -- it might as well be their kids."

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter is more sympathetic. He opposes drug war excesses, but believes they stem from a feeling amongst boomers that some users became a "lost generation."

"Most people did drugs in moderation and were fine and outgrew it," he admits. "But a core group, maybe 20 percent -- the real stoners and freaks -- just didn't live up to their potential." As a result, people don't want to talk about benign drug experiences -- for fear of encouraging the next generation, he says.

But this view conveniently overlooks the fact that a similar percentage of the boomers' parents' generation was lost to alcohol or tranquilizers -- as well as the fact that the drug laws haven't reduced addiction or drug-death rates. "We're torn, ambivalent, hypocritical, self-flagellating. " Alter says, "Sometimes we lie, sometimes we tell a little bit of the truth. We're a big soppy mess when it comes to dealing with drugs."

New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm once said: "Hypocrisy is the grease that keeps society functioning in an agreeable way by allowing for human fallibility and reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable human needs for pleasure and order." With regard to drugs in America, the pendulum seems suspended on the order side. There's no recognition of the value of pleasure, of the fact that drug use is a human universal or that risk is part of life. Few dare argue that some might make a valid choice to seek drug highs rather than other thrills -- even though marijuana use (with no reported overdose deaths), for example, is less dangerous than skiing (which kills about three dozen people a year). Boomers may have been right not to trust anyone over 30.

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