Drug Czar Battles Hordes of Crazed Potheads!

He'll huff, and he'll puff, and he'll blow your house down. He'll act out violently, get your next door neighbor's daughter pregnant, and he may even be supporting terrorism while he's at it.

This imaginary pot smoker composite is drug czar John Walters's big bad wolf, and only a duct-taped cottage window seems to stand in the path of the cannabis-fueled monster that lurks around the corner.

That, and $150 million earmarked in the current fiscal year to further a propagandistic anti-marijuana campaign, courtesy of Walters's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Full-page advertisements from the ONDCP in national newspapers and magazines (including The Nation) are just the latest gambit aimed at generating a heightened sense of parental anxiety and moral panic, suggesting that aggressive or violent behavior -- and even psychoses -- are among the consequences awaiting young people who try marijuana.

Health consequences for teens who smoke marijuana are, of course, something kids and their parents should talk about openly, but with real facts at hand. Compared to much more common binge drinking -- to say nothing of consequent car accidents, and sexual and physical abuse -- pot smoking should, logically, rank much lower on the list of parental concerns.

Not so, says the drug czar. Parents need to know that they are the "anti-drug" and millions are being spent telling them there's no drug more dangerous to the nation's teenagers than marijuana. And if the parent "fails" to protect society from a pot-smoking teen, then law enforcement is eager to step in, to the tune of nearly 126,000 juvenile arrests for marijuana offenses in 2000 alone. "We have policy on marijuana being made by fanatics and ideologues," says Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, DC. "I think the current campaign is seen as a safe way to fire up their socially conservative base and to squash the movement to rethink our marijuana laws and drug laws in general," adds Mirken. "It's certainly not any sort of a rational attempt to prevent harm to our young people."

For his part, Walters has been busy crisscrossing the nation, trying to extinguish even the slightest moves to alter the nation's draconian drug laws. In Nevada last year, Walters spent months campaigning to help defeat Question 9, which would have legalized and regulated marijuana there. When Nevada's Secretary of State demanded disclosure of the monies spent campaigning against a state initiative -- as required by Nevada law -- Walters and the ONDCP shrugged it off and simply refused to disclose. More recently, Walters and a small cadre of aides paid a well-timed visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico, just days before a medical marijuana initiative was introduced in the state legislature. The drug czar talked about the dangers of marijuana and handed out packets featuring pictures of smiling, drug-free Native American children.

And in Maryland in late March, Walters campaigned in full force, trying to prevent passage of that state's conservatively worded medical marijuana bill. The arguments for medical marijuana, Walters announced, make no more sense than "an argument for medical crack."

It's reefer madness, all over again. In the 1930s, Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Harry Anslinger oversaw a well-timed, post-alcohol prohibition crusade to criminalize and demonize the use of marijuana. Movies of the era, including the cult-classic Reefer Madness, depicted the "demon weed" changing the personalities of high school kids, who after partaking went insane, immersed themselves in "evil" jazz music and then went on murder sprees. Sometimes it seems that Walters is no more sophisticated than his crude 1930s-era counterpart, explains University of Southern California psychology professor Mitch Earleywine.

Professor Earleywine, who wrote last year's "Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence," notes that Walters is resorting to emotionally provocative and hysterical imagery -- including televised images of a teen being molested and another girl ending up with an unwanted pregnancy because they smoked weed. Another commercial shows a boy accidentally shooting his friend after getting high. "[That's] the best argument for gun control I've seen in years," says Earleywine. "But lies like these cost us credibility [with teens]. Even true statements about dangerous drugs like cocaine and heroin become suspect."

And there's absolutely no evidence that the ONDCP campaign, which included the creation of websites such as TheAntiDrug.com, Freevibe.com, TeachersGuide.org and DrugStory.org (for entertainment and health journalists, no less), is working. An independent group hired by the government to evaluate the campaign last year found that there had been "no statistically significant decline in marijuana use, to date, and some evidence of an increase in use from 2000 to 2001...Also there's no tendency for those reporting more exposure to Campaign messages to hold more desirable beliefs."

Perhaps in response to this study, the ONDCP announced on April 1 that it was ending its "drugs=terrorism" campaign in favor of other approaches. At the same time, the drug czar's office also mentioned that it was putting a stop to the aforementioned annual study.

The persistence of grossly exaggerated antidrug propaganda has been a uniquely American approach since Anslinger's time. Only today, the stakes are higher, with the drug-war budget at record levels: Nearly $20 billion for the current fiscal year, according to analysis from Common Sense for Drug Policy. The lifelong societal consequences for a drug arrest are ever more severe in the form of denied student aid, public housing and welfare to those with felony drug records. As millions of ex-offenders have found out, decent, well-paying jobs are nearly impossible to come by once a drug charge has found its way onto a criminal record.

In 2001, on average, marijuana offenders served more than three years in federal prison. But much longer prison terms -- even life sentences -- for marijuana-related offenses are being meted out, disrupting and sometimes destroying the lives of mostly ordinary, otherwise law-abiding Americans. Altogether, nearly 734,000 people were arrested in the United States for a marijuana-related offense in 2000, the most recent year for which such figures are available. Of those arrests, according to the FBI's division of Uniform Crime Reports, 88 percent were for possession.

In perhaps the most devastating example of a drug-war policy gone awry, a married couple, Dennis and Denise Schilling, chose to end their lives rather than face a house forfeiture and time in prison. They had been arrested for selling $120 worth of marijuana to an undercover police office, who subsequently raided their house and arrested the couple in Wisconsin last fall. After his parents hung themselves in a motel, son Joshua Schilling was spared prison for his part in the small-scale sale but sentenced to thousands of dollars in fines, three years' probation and other assorted forms of punishment. "Perhaps someday, people like me will not be so persecuted," Denise Schilling wrote in her suicide note. Perhaps someday, indeed.

Silja J.A. Talvi writes on prison and criminal justice issues for In These Times, the Christian Science Monitor, The Nation and other publications. Her work appears in the newly released anthology, "Prison Nation" (Routledge, 2003).


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