Drugs, Guns and Money
Just about everone hates the War on Drugs. Public officials and pundits at every point along the political spectrum, from the governors of New Mexico and Minnesota to the former mayor of Baltimore, have railed against its wastefulness; Detroit Police Chief Jerry Oliver blames it for exacerbating inner-city crime. William F. Buckley calls it a "plague that consumes an estimated $75 billion per year in public money"; Christopher Hitchens has labeled it "grotesque, state-sponsored racketeering."
According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center last year, three-quarters of the country believes the drug war is failing. Enter the words "end the war on drugs" into Google, and you'll get some 2,400 links, leading to the Web sites of religious groups, corporate-media sources and drug-legalization advocacy groups.
You might also get a couple of "sponsored links" -- paid advertisements Google coughs up when you search for certain keywords. One evening I got two: an ad for Questia.com, where you can "research the War on Drugs at the world's largest online library," and another for www.mymeds.org, advertising "Xanax, Valium, Lortab, etc. (Import a 90-day personal supply)."
The irony is obvious, and clichéd enough to be comical. As Mike Gray points out in the introduction to his new anthology, "Busted: Stone Cowboys, Narco-Lords and Washington's War on Drugs" (Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books), the U.S. government spends over $40 billion annually to promote the cause of a drug-free America, while Bob Dole appears on national television shilling for Viagra. Marijuana is non-lethal and non-addictive, but you can't talk about it on the phone; Xanax is known to be dangerously addictive and Valium is responsible for thousands of deaths by overdose every year, but both are readily available with the click of a mouse.
"There has never been a drug-free society anywhere," argues Gray, also author of the 1998 "Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out," "least of all in the United States where the dividing line between legal and illegal seems almost whimsical."
This deep societal muddle-mindedness finds a parallel in public attitudes toward the control of illegal substances. Despite a majority vote of non-confidence for the drug war, the Pew study found that most Americans still defend its tactics. Over half of the people interviewed believed that arresting and locking up both drug users and dealers were the best solutions to our drug problems, even while our prisons fill to bursting with nonviolent offenders.
Just as many poll participants agreed that more needed to be done to halt the importation of illegal substances, even though attempts to shut down the international market have only contributed to a more sophisticated network of international criminals willing to risk their lives to satisfy the lucrative American market.
And so the drug war continues unabated, with the Bush administration -- for which legalization proponents once held out hope -- ramping up spending on interdiction and enforcement and aiming to expand punishable offenses to include driving while under the influence of yesterday's marijuana. The DEA, in an effort to make wayward states comply with the federal ban on any kind of marijuana use, has stooped so low that it's raiding California hospices and carting away the terminally ill.
"The War on Drugs," says Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, a think tank advocating drug-law reform, "just keeps getting bigger and meaner."
"Busted" begins with an essay by T.D. Allman called "Blow Back," an earlier version of which ran in Rolling Stone last spring, just as the billion-dollar defoliation and harassment effort known as "Plan Colombia" was found to have resulted in a 25 percent increase in coca production. It's an apt beginning: Allman uses the blunders of Colombia as a metaphor for U.S. drug policy, which "trundles along, divorced from reality." The War on Drugs has become, he argues, an institutionalized arm of the federal government, "much like the Department of the Interior." Among the salaried careerists who stroll the manicured lawns of Arlington, Virginia, where the DEA is headquartered, Allman detected "no real sense that the War on Drugs was something that might actually be lost or won, and end someday."
Most of the articles that follow in "Busted," such as Joshua Wolf Shenk's 1999 Harper's magazine piece "America's Altered States: When Does Legal Relief of Pain Become Illegal Pursuit of Pleasure?," will be familiar to anyone who's been casually tracking U.S. drug policy. Oliver Stone's legendary, heartbreaking interview with the seemingly gracious Manuel Noriega ("I understand that the nature of your profession is sensationalist . . .," the general tells the director, "but I want to tell you there is another truth in this situation"), which ran in The Nation in 1994, is reprinted here. So is New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal's coffee-klatch phone call with Clinton's drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, which was picked up by Harper's after California voters approved the distribution of medical marijuana with Proposition 215. ("Where do we go from now?" pleads the perplexed and sympathetic journalist.)
Gray's genius is not that he's dug up much new material, but that he's spliced the familiar information with lesser-known texts in a way that puts the issues in a persuasive context.
Cast in the light of Allman's "Blow Back," for example, it's much easier to absorb Craig Reinarman's argument, from a 1998 issue of Het Parool, that the U.S. fears Dutch drug policy because the Dutch have demonstrated, with significant drops in both drug-related crime and drug use, that legalization works. After reading the accounts of European countries that treat heroin addiction as a health issue in Adam J. Smith's "America's Lonely Drug War," from Mother Jones magazine, the "Commonsense Drug Policy" of Ethan Nadelmann, with its calls for clean needles and methadone clinics, seems altogether moderate and wholesome. In the shadow of Shenk's treatise on the politics of pharmaceuticals, Dr. Charles Grob's "Politics of Ecstasy," written by one of the bravest and most outspoken proponents of clinical MDMA in the medical establishment, rings axiomatically true.
In fact, by the end of "Busted," which concludes with Lester Grinspoon, M.D., reminding us that, among other things, if cannabis could be patented and profited from, it would be legal by now, it seems clear that the solution to both the drug war and our national drug problem is, ironically, to legalize all drugs -- from heroin to methamphetamine to LSD.
Let injection-drug users shoot up in clinics until they're ready to quit; let coffeehouses sell hash and therapists treat their posttraumatic stress survivors with MDMA-guided sessions. We could not be worse off than we are now, with the highest rates of drug abuse, drug-related violence and incarcerated drug offenders in the world -- not to mention severely abridged civil liberties. As Buckley himself once sagely observed, "Marijuana has never kicked down anyone's door in the middle of the night."
And so "Busted" does what more political anthologies should -- it builds an implicit and convincing argument, not simply and straightforwardly, but by layering case after case until the evidence is irrefutable. It may not have a profound impact on government policy -- "Busted" is, after all, a book aimed at the believers.
It's not likely that someone like Senator Orrin Hatch, who gets a half a million dollars every campaign season from the same pharmaceutical industry that bankrolled the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, is going to pick up "Busted" and experience some sort of lightning-bolt flash of sagacity that will induce him to stop sponsoring bills that extend the draconian provisions of the crack-house law to raves. But as a source of ammunition for opponents of the drug war, a manifesto of reason, and a document of where our drug policy stands now, Gray has compiled an invaluable and comprehensive reference.
Judith Lewis is a staff writer for the LA Weekly.