Uncle Sam's Wacky War on Drugs

Comedian Tommy Chong began a nine-month federal prison sentence on October 7 for operating a glass-blowing shop that sold pipes to marijuana smokers. Prosecutors were not impressed that his Nice Dreams Enterprises marketed a morally neutral product. Chong's pipes, after all, could be used with loose-leaf tobacco, just as any stoner in an Armani suit can smoke pot in a lawful Dunhill meerschaum.

In fact, as the Los Angeles Times reported October 10, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Houghton's court pleadings sought Chong's harsh punishment because he got rich "glamorizing the illegal distribution and use of marijuana" in films that "trivialize law enforcement efforts to combat drug trafficking and use."

Chong must have wondered when such activities became criminal. Perhaps the FBI now will arrest Sean Penn for hilariously smoking grass in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Then they can handcuff Denzel Washington for portraying a crooked narcotics officer in "Training Day."

At last, the homeland is secure from Chong, a 65-year-old comic whose merchandise spared potheads from fumbling with rolling papers. Could there be any greater triumph for public safety than that? And in this peaceful world and placid nation, taxpayers can rest assured that officials are using their hard-earned cash as wisely as possible. Recall that Chong and 54 others were busted in Operation Pipe Dreams, a February 24 crackdown on the drug paraphernalia industry. That project involved 1,200 local, state and federal authorities, the Drug Enforcement Administration estimates. These professional sleuths could have pursued al-Qaeda instead, but what would that have accomplished?

All seriousness aside, as funnyman Steve Allen often said, federal drug warriors keep embarrassing themselves by enforcing pointless, oppressive policies that merely ignite tax dollars as if with a Zippo lighter. Like every White House since Nixon's, the Bush Administration continues the collective, bipartisan hallucination that Uncle Sam's heavy hand can crush the desire of millions of Americans to alter their states of consciousness. Fortunately, some judges, states and cities have soured on the costly and cruel War on Drugs as it grinds through its 30th futile year.

It is neither compassionate nor conservative for the Bush Administration to use government force to stop cancer and AIDS sufferers, among others, from smoking marijuana to make their final days on Earth less excruciating. The U.S. Supreme Court evidently agrees. On October 14, the Supremes let stand a Ninth Circuit Court decision blocking federal efforts to yank the prescription-writing licenses of doctors who recommend medical marijuana to patients. This was a huge victory for the First Amendment, medical privacy and the freedom of diseased Americans to ease their pain.

Seattle voters on September 16 approved Initiative 75 by 57.8 to 42.2 percent. I-75 instructs local police and prosecutors to make adult marijuana possession their lowest priority. Seattle's citizens decided to focus their limited resources on legitimate public needs, such as catching murderers, foiling rapists and preventing terrorists from, say, toppling the landmark Space Needle.

A recent Drug Policy Alliance study found that between 1996 and 2000, voters endorsed 17 of 19 statewide ballot measures to approve medical marijuana, protect civil liberties, treat rather than imprison non-violent addicts and limit civil-asset forfeiture. From 1996 to 2002, 46 states passed some 150 such enlightened, fiscally responsible drug-law reforms.

"The War on Drugs may well be the most wasteful use of government resources today," said Don Murphy, a DPA spokesman and former Republican Maryland delegate. "As a taxpayer, it's nice to know that Maryland is not alone in embracing more pragmatic approaches."

Even Drug Czar John Walters may see this issue slipping from his iron fist. While campaigning against I-75 on September 10, Seattle Weekly reported, Walters could have preached zero tolerance. Instead, he said, "The real issue is should we legalize marijuana." He added, "Let's have a debate about that."

In a September 17 letter to Walters, Robert Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, wrote: "It's time to have that debate, so I am pleased to accept your invitation."

An honest, national debate on the War on Drugs in general -- and its uniquely idiotic marijuana phobia in particular --- would be a welcome development in the sad history of this national fiasco.

New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.


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