Halting Drug Reform

Drug reformers of varying stripes embrace different goals, from the widely supported decriminalization of medical marijuana to relieve the pain of cancer, wasting from AIDS, or the spasticity of multiple sclerosis to the legalization of recreational pot, the distribution of clean needles to addicts and the mandating of treatment rather than incarceration for low-level drug offenders.

Though there's been scattered progress on these goals around the country in recent years, overall, especially on the federal level, interdiction and incarceration remain the goal if not always the reality. Handcuffed by his foolish, glib remark about not inhaling, Bill Clinton never dared veer from the prohibitionist mindset. While George W. Bush gives lip service to treatment, on his watch Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents point rifles at Suzanne Pfeil, a paraplegic in California. When she was unable to rise at the agents' command, they handcuffed her to her bed while proceeding to destroy the medicine growing in a garden outside. This is repression with a decidedly uncompassionate face.

As if absorbing the Republican ascendancy -- completed with the GOP's capture of the Senate -- wasn't challenge enough, drug reformers were also staggered by the failure of several state ballot initiatives -- this after years of overwhelming electoral success. State and federal officials, including cabinet officers and governors, joined forces with a nip-'em-in-the-bud judiciary to help defeat the initiatives. Well-heeled activists tried but failed to move beyond medical marijuana to the riskier arenas of treatment rather than incarceration for low-level offenders and even (in Nevada) outright legalization of the demon weed.

As drug reformers offered each other salt for their wounds, curiously enough, a sort of halting progress has recently emerged. Each step forward was achieved only when reformers managed to capture a fickle media's intermittent attention.

The Guru Of Ganja

In the California case against 'Guru of Ganja' Ed Rosenthal, jurors raised a post-trial ruckus over the judge's rulings that prevented his defense from telling them that Rosenthal was no mere profiteer, but a cultivator of medicine deputized by the City of Oakland to supply its patients. The press piled on the half-baked verdict and, rather than the six and a half years requested by prosecutors, Rosenthal was sentenced to a single day in jail. But he remains a felon stripped of the right to vote, and the feds are appealing the non-sentence.

House Republicans tried to slip in legislation re-authorizing the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) provisions that would have allowed Drug Czar John P. Walters to use the five-year, $1.2 billion ad campaign as he wished, to defeat future ballot measures or even individual candidates the White House opposed. When a sharp-eyed lobbyist at the Drug Policy Alliance spotted the hidden provisions, reformers raised holy heck, and these particular abuses were blocked.

That doesn't change the fact that -- since by statute ONDCP buys all its ads at half-price -- there'll be something approaching $400 million in social marketing flooding the media annually over the next five years. Given that the entire beer industry spends approximately $1 billion a year on overall marketing, think of the sheer heft of nearly 40 percent of the beer effort. No wonder the Democrats on that House committee revolted at the prospect of Walters running free with that kind of money.

And the Bush administration has kept the heat on by asking the Supreme Court to overturn an appeals court ruling that, while forbidding the writing of prescriptions, did allow doctors to recommend medical marijuana. The Clinton administration lost the case on free speech grounds, and only now is the Bush Department of Justice trying to appeal. According to The San Francisco Chronicle, doctors could still have such discussions with patients, provided they indicated pot is illegal and that "federal authorities consider it dangerous and medically useless, and that the doctor is not recommending it." A very curious discussion indeed. Should the administration prevail before the Supremes, that would throw out the practical underpinnings of current medical marijuana use in states throughout the West and Maine.

Additionally, the Bush nominee to run the DEA, Karen Tandy, indicated to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has just sent her nomination to the full Senate, that her DEA will enforce the federal laws against medical marijuana.

Doing Time In Texas (And New York)

In Texas, after years of reformers' rabble-rousing, the last 12 defendants from the panhandle town of Tulia were released on bond, as the thin fabrications of their undercover accuser fell apart under the hammering of some dedicated lawyers, bolstered by the national media's attention. But the reprieve of the last of these nearly 50 poor, black defendants -- these supposed drug kingpins who lived in shacks -- is still subject to the delicate ministrations of Texas judicial review.

In New York, after decades of pressure, the infamous Rockefeller drug laws seemed ripe for reform. They're the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines that imprison for decades the likes of girlfriends of low-level dealers for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Joining the long-term, "Drop the Rock" crusaders, this year rap impresario Russell Simmons lent his salutary attention to the reform effort. Yet despite the Simmons' added hoopla, legislators left town providing no relief to those wasting the only life they've got behind bars.

Now New York Gov. George Pataki has floated a new proposal that does little to ameliorate the Rockefeller laws' worst excesses. The Pataki plan would not return judicial discretion from prosecutors to judges, nor add any resources for treatment rather than incarceration. In short, thousands of offenders would still wind up behind bars, some for even longer periods of time than before. As to the 19,000 offenders currently incarcerated, according to the Drug Policy Alliance "only a few hundred" would have their sentences reduced.

New York aside, numerous states around the country, including Kansas, Michigan and even Texas, are considering or have decreased sentencing for low-level, non-violent offenders -- typically hapless addicts dealing small weight on the street to keep their own dope demons at bay. Sanity beckons as state budget gaps widen.

Timely Triumphs

In Maryland, years of lobbying by the Marijuana Policy Project paid off with a reduction in penalties for medical marijuana users. Though it's not the feds-be-gone state legalization that reformers aim for, the sentencing reduction to a $100 fine is particularly significant since it was signed into law by a Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., despite overt pressure from the White House.

Amidst these muted triumphs, as ever, there's the two steps back part of the equation. Headlines have screamed about the evolving decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana in Canada. Yet the flapdoodle ignores the fact that -- should the legislation be enacted later this year -- penalties for growing or distributing pot have been vastly increased. Even growing a single plant could fetch a big fine and up to a year in jail. While seemingly appealing to its electorate, the Canadian government is throwing a mighty big bone to the U.S. drug warriors who've threatened disrupting the billion-dollar-a-day cross-border trade.

And the tickets that Canadian police will now be encouraged to write for a modest (about half an ounce) amount of pot may find their way into an incriminating database that might well bar offenders from working in many professions, serving in the Canadian military or ever entering the United States.

Still, congenital optimist Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Foundation, likes to think, "The Canadians bluffed the U.S. into backing off: They won't enforce those laws, and a law that's not enforced loses effect." While Toronto won't turn into Amsterdam anytime soon, real change is occuring, he said. "That backs the U.S. government to the wall since Canadians are so similar to Americans," St. Pierre figures.

Raving Politics

Drug hawk Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) tied his anti-rave legislation -- which had been blocked last year -- to the tail of a child abuse alert law, and it sailed right through. Within a month, a cowboy DEA agent in, appropriately enough, Billings, Montana, threatened a fraternal lodge with a potential $250,000 fine should anyone at a medical marijuana 'battle of the bands' fund-raiser be caught smoking a joint. After a (small) outcry from the press, the DEA's egg-on-face, backpedaling statements that the agent was just warning the lodge about potential overcrowding and the like (neat that the DEA now provides guidance on fire codes) doesn't rectify the fact that a political benefit was canceled.

Virginia passed a law in May allowing for routine drug-testing of the state's students; the state attorney general will encourage the testing. He apparently doesn't care that federally financed research conducted by the University of Michigan found that drug use occurs in schools that test as often as in schools that don't.

In Columbia, Missouri this April, a city ordinance backed by the local NORML chapter would have permitted use of medical marijuana and lessened possession fines for up to an ounce of pot. But the ordinance was soundly defeated following a campaign appearance by a White House official: Scott Burns, the ONDCP's deputy director for state and local affairs, happened to find himself in Columbia speaking out against the initiative.

Burns' advocacy was cut from the same cloth as a letter he'd previously sent to local prosecutors nationwide urging them to beef up pot enforcement, since "no drug matches the threat posed by marijuana." Writing from his perch within the "Executive Office of the President," Burns urged that all first-time marijuana offenders, including the kid caught in a parking lot with a joint, should be coerced into treatment. The administration harps on the number of adolescents getting treatment for pot, but somehow never mentions that some two-thirds of them are in treatment involuntarily.

Even with the current restrictions in place, a recent ONDCP anti-drug TV ad continued the refrain that drug use leads to murder, corruption, torture and terrorism. But in a new twist -- in a message designed to boost acceptance for current budgets and policies as well as defeat any future initiatives -- the ad posits that any lessening of penalties will inexorably lead to crack stands at the local laundromat and heroin at the mini-mart, a message that's a long way from anything about keeping kids off drugs.

All this in a country where, at nearly half-a-million, the number of drug prisoners has increased some tenfold over the past two decades; where drug prices have gone down and purity has gone up; where middle class kids scared of needles find plenty of high-potency heroin to snort or smoke -- and still get addicted. And yet the feds busy themselves with nonsense about pot that's supposedly 30 times more potent than what the hippies smoked back in the 1960s.


In February, according to The New York Times, the Office of Management and Budget stated that the poorly managed DEA "is unable to demonstrate progress in reducing the availability of illegal drugs in the United States." The OMB declared that the DEA has no strategic planning, no accountability for managers and inadequate financial controls.

No matter. The for-profit incarceration and treatment industries are thriving. According to Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, the for-profit treatment sector has increased in size tenfold over the last two decades. But the drug war goes deeper than mere profit, as it has since Richard Nixon launched its modern incarnation as a calculated appeal to conservative whites. Notes Sterling, "The war on drugs is now the major legal mechanism for maintaining white privilege and stigmatizing people of color, especially blacks. Its effects have replaced legal segregation as the legal and social mechanism to maintain white privilege."

To the degree democracy reigns in America, the federal strategy of demonizing drugs, particularly marijuana, makes sense. Yet recent polling indicates that the drug warriors are plugging holes in the dike of public opinion while water slops over the top. Nearly 80 percent of the country consistently favors medical marijuana. Even subtracting medicine from the equation the feds are still fighting uphill. According to a recent Zogby poll, 41 percent of Americans think the government should treat marijuana like alcohol; as the poll put it, the government "should regulate it, control it, tax it and only make it illegal for children." This is a significant rise from a 2001 Gallup poll that found 34 percent in favor of legalization. Said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, "No other criminal law on the books in this country is enforced so vigorously, yet backed by such a small majority of Americans."

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