Ending the forever war on drugs

by Dave Maier

As someone who lived through the surreal drug-war dystopia of the 1980s, I have always assumed that the collected forces behind it (right-wing authoritarianism, progressive nanny-statism, the law enforcement, private-prison, and Big Pharma lobbies, general aversion to other races and/or dirty f’ing hippies, inertia and lack of imagination, etc.) would render it a permanent fixture of our political landscape, at least in the USA. So even after two states re-legalized marijuana in 2012 (and two more since), I didn’t pay much attention. It simply remained inconceivable to me that it would go beyond that.

Nowadays, however, one hears frequently that re-legalization of marijuana and perhaps even all “illicit” drugs is inevitable and in fact will happen sooner rather than later. The thought is that young people (i.e. new voters) are strongly in favor of re-legalization and only older people (i.e. those preparing to shuffle off this mortal coil and thus off the voting rolls) are strongly against – and even the latter are discovering, perhaps to their surprise, the apparently wondrous utility (if anecdote be any guide) of medical cannabis. The latest nationwide polls on the issue show Americans favoring the end of marijuana prohibition by wide margins (58-39, 56-36, numbers like that), suggesting a cultural shift as momentous and sudden (at least to those not paying attention, such as myself) as that which has led to today’s widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage.

So I thought I better get up to speed and hit the books. I don’t have a tightly argued, persuasive essay for you, and I am still only halfway through a fairly tall stack of relevant literature, but I can at least pass on some recommendations and share some speculation over the next couple of columns.

Baum I'd start with Dan Baum’s authoritative study Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure (1996). This will fire your outrage and keep you going through some of the more pedestrian public-policy issues, as well as dauntingly complex psychopharmacology, on offer later on. Baum insists that the book is not a manifesto for legalization, but rather an examination of the genesis of the war, which he traces to the election of 1968, and its escalation into “a policy as expensive, ineffective, delusional, and destructive as government gets.”

A recurrent theme in Baum’s story, as he notes in his introduction, is that “[t]he War on Drugs is about a lot of things, but only rarely is it really about drugs.” Notoriously high on President Nixon’s paranoid list of enemies were “the blacks” and “the hippies”, and by fomenting drug war he saw a way to attack both at once. When his hand-picked Presidential Commission on Marijuana (a.k.a. the Shafer Commission) failed to provide the desired denunciations of drug use (Nixon had demanded “a goddamn strong statement about marijuana … one that just tears the ass out of them”), Nixon simply ignored it. In any case Congress had already passed the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, which still determines government policy in this area to this day. The drug war – or at least its modern phase – had begun.

Baum builds his story gradually, passing through the brief thaw during the first part of the Carter years (a thaw which ended abruptly with a legendary, colossal screwup by the reform side), and then accelerating through the Reagan and Bush I eras into a spiral of bipartisan madness which, Baum argues, left the Constitution, particularly the Fourth Amendment, virtually in tatters. In this sense, in contradiction to his book’s subtitle, it is not quite right to claim that the decades-long war, with its trillion-dollar expenditure and seemingly disastrous results, has been a failure. Seen as an unprecedented transfer of brute power to a newly militarized law enforcement and the concomitant mass incarceration and decimation of civil rights during this era, which Baum meticulously documents in a cold fury, it is instead revealed as doing exactly what it was intended by its architects to do. Several chapters of Smoke and Mirrors end with a Harper’s Index-style list of statistics. Chapter 16, “Times of War,” ends with a single chilling stat: “Percentage of drug-trafficking defendants nationwide between 1985 and 1987 who were African-American: 99.”

The war on drugs is a culture war, of which law enforcement has been only one aspect. When Nancy Reagan visited an elementary school on July 4, 1984, a fourth-grader asked her what he should do if someone offers him pot. Her answer – ironically, perhaps, just the one I myself would have given – was destined to become iconic: “Just say no.” This simple phrase, in the hands of culture warriors determined to “close the debate” and “declare drug abuse wrong” once and for all, sums up that era in three short words, or even one:

[F]or the majority of kids who weren’t using drugs, Just Say No was a reassuring message that there is a non-drug-using culture alongside the glamorously publicized drug culture. And it may even have emboldened some kids to say no. …

Just Say No wasn’t the worst part of the Reagan Drug War. It didn’t put anybody in prison or diminish anybody’s civil liberties. It didn’t deploy armies of drug agents with inflated powers to wiretap and surveil. It didn’t weaken the Fourth Amendment. It didn’t ratchet up violence in the inner cities by fielding “sweeps” that disrupted volatile drug turfs and touched off gunfights. It didn’t lead county officials to spend more on criminal justice than on education. It didn’t dismantle a federally funded treatment system that took ten years to build. And it didn’t jail people without trial, confiscate their property without due process, or deny them public housing, student loans, or federal benefits.

But Just Say No did something insidious. It finished [DEA administrator] Dick Williams’s job of closing the debate. In fact, it reduced the debate to a single word. Don’t talk about why people use drugs, the slogan said. Don’t ask why Halcion and malt liquor are legal drugs while marijuana and cocaine are not. Don’t talk about the difference between drug use and drug abuse. Don’t talk about the tendency of prohibition to promote violence and the use of stronger and more dangerous drugs. Don’t talk about the lives, taxpayer dollars, and civil liberties sacrificed for the Drug War. Don’t talk about the culture and race wars waged under the Drug War battle flag. Don’t talk about the medical potential of illegal drugs. Don’t talk at all. Just say no.

The country’s ability to discuss the problems of drug abuse and debate solutions had been withering for years under Williams’s efforts to close the debate and the White House’s hiring and promotion of untrained zealots openly hostile to science, data, and “intellectuals.” Just Say No, ostensibly aimed at children, finished the debate off. What replaced it was an unquestionable, antidrug orthodoxy that skewed the work of every government agency, elevated drug users to national enemies, and limited even the language permissible in drug discussions. From Reagan through Clinton [the current president at the time], the merest suggestion that the country pursue any path but total prohibition has been tantamount to forbidden speech. (p. 200)

HariThat was twenty years ago, when things looked bleak. Just last year, however, journalist Johann Hari published a book with a much more optimistic subtitle: Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. (If you don't read the book, at least check out this interview with Sam Harris, in which Hari hits many of the high points.) While still registering appropriate outrage for the dark deeds of that dark era – Hari begins his tale with the almost cartoonishly evil director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, one Harry Anslinger, in the 1930s – his tone is ultimately much more hopeful than Baum’s. Carefully managed, he believes, legalization of even the most dangerous drugs can point the way out of our self-made predicament. In fact, Hari is rather more lukewarm about the prospect of legalizing marijuana, a much less dangerous drug. He feels that the toxic, mutually reinforcing interplay of addiction and prohibition is less of a problem in the case of marijuana than it is for opiates, making re-legalization of the former less urgent, and perhaps even, due to the admitted health risks to children, not a good idea at all. Hari’s pragmatic and passionately humane “harm reduction” attitude thus differs significantly from the broadly libertarian approach of many marijuana re-legalizers, such as Reason magazine’s Jacob Sullum, who simply contest the government’s right to decide which substances citizens of a supposedly free society may ingest, and leaves Hari “divided” on marijuana legalization specifically. Also check out the book’s website, chasingthescream.com, where you may find a link to Hari's remarkable TED talk about addiction.

Smoke SignalsMore specifically weed-centered is our next book, Martin A. Lee’s Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medicinal, Recreational, and Scientific (2012), a sequel to his more lysergically oriented Acid Dreams. That history, it turns out, begins in the Neolithic period, in which the cannabis plant was apparently used for all kinds of things, and it at first seems that we are in for a long haul (the book is 519 pages long). However, we pass briskly through some now familiar material to the flowering of the medical-marijuana movement in the 1990s. Activists had been pressing for legalization of marijuana for medical uses at least since the 1970s, when Robert Randall successfully sued the government not only to back off, but in fact actually to supply him a monthly supply of joints for his glaucoma, sourced from what remains to this day the single government-sanctioned cannabis farm in the country, at the University of Mississippi. During the AIDS era, marijuana’s anti-emetic properties were the primary focus of medical interest, and since then medical uses for cannabis have only multiplied. These promising results are sometimes merely anecdotally documented (perforce given the government’s legal monopoly on cannabis research, historically dedicated primarily to finding harm rather than benefit), but this is beginning to change, especially overseas. Lee spends some time explaining contemporary thinking about an Israeli researcher’s discovery of the endocannabinoid system of neurochemical receptors in the body, and Lee's enthusiasm for same can lead him into bewildering waters, at least for this non-biochemist, but if you can keep the CB-1 and CB-2 cell receptors straight, then more power to you.

Lee’s story really takes off in the second half of the book, in which he documents the extended roller-coaster ride of alternating medical-marijuana legal successes and government law-enforcement counterattacks, undertaken depressingly often by SWAT teams with flak jackets and flashbangs. He’s not as angry as Baum, but there’s no doubt which side he’s on, and certain borderline gratuitous details (heartless narcs steal one patient’s wedding ring) and turns of phrase (Nixon is referred to more than once as “Tricky Dick”; Bill Clinton is “Slick Willie”; cops are occasionally “fuzz”) mar, for me anyway, the advertised historical objectivity of his account. Still, it’s good to have an exhaustive history – especially one which goes up to 2012, the dawn of full legalization – and the photo of an impossibly young Allen Ginsberg standing in the snow holding a hand-lettered sign reading “Pot is Fun” is worth the price of admission. Especially if you take the book out of the library.

Marijuana-Nation-coverAfter all this history, a more personal account is a welcome change (though I actually read this one before Smoke Signals). I had never heard of Roger Roffman, but he turns out to have been a player in the marijuana reform movement from his days as a junior social worker in the U.S. Army. Marijuana Nation: One Man’s Chronicle of America Getting High: From Vietnam to Legalization (2014) chronicles not only Roffman’s work as a reform advocate from then to now but also his own personal evolution during that time. As the newly dragooned coordinator for the Washington State chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), Roffman led the fight for legislative decriminalization in that state during the 1970s, but firmly resisted the organization’s call for full legalization, threatening a public break on the issue, as he felt that in pushing for the latter goal NORML downplayed what for him were the very real dangers of marijuana use.

This issue takes on a dramatic and poignant cast later in the book, where Roffman reveals his own struggles with marijuana dependence and his subsequent turn to sobriety. This would be the point where a less principled person would turn on his former self, denouncing the naive permissiveness which nearly ruined his marriage due to his compulsive drug use, and resist even more strongly than before what might now appear to him as not simply premature but downright pernicious: full legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes. Instead, as the professional social worker he is, he remains committed to helping each constituency equally: marijuana users too harshly punished by the law, medical marijuana patients forced to deal with absurd limitations on their ability to procure medicine, and actual or potential marijuana users caught in dependence or otherwise damaged by their use.

At first, again, this latter worry prevents Roffman from supporting full legalization of marijuana (i.e. for “recreational” as well as medical uses). The advent of legal medical marijuana in California in recent years, while indeed allowing patients greater access to their medicine (when not being raided by the feds, that is), also led to developments Roffman found disturbing. By 2008 he felt this way:

Medical marijuana laws became a form of back door legalization for buyers, many of whom had no valid medical need. And the provisions of these laws offered a gold mine for those doctors who indiscriminately sold their signatures, and growers who, under the guise of being the primary caregivers, crossed way over the line in claiming their crops were solely for patients. … I felt alienated by people leading the reform movement. This new generation of activists was riding the medical marijuana bandwagon, believing this was the way to eventually gain public support for entirely ending the prohibition of pot. … I still believed in reform, but I felt out of synch with those trying to achieve it in this way. … I also rankled at the image of a healthy kid smirking because he was able to stick it to the man by getting an authorization letter.

In 2011, however, while still concerned that reform advocates were downplaying the risks of marijuana use, Roffman agreed, after much internal and external debate (which he shares with us at length), to sponsor the eventually successful 2012 Washington state ballot initiative legalizing and regulating marijuana. His scruples about health risks were mollified by the initiative’s earmarking of tax revenues for drug education and treatment, unlike the contemporary proposal in Colorado (also successful), which gave the money to (non-drug) education. Roffman ends his book with a moving soliloquy tying together his thoughts about war, of both the Vietnam and drug varieties. “It’s time. We need to come home from this war.”

Next time: some of my own reflections (and more books!)