Pubdate: Tue, 16 Oct 2001
Source: Massachusetts Daily Collegian (MA Edu)
Copyright: 2001 Daily Collegian
Contact: 413-545-1592
Note: Publication of University of Massachusetts
Author: Jake Lilien


Last year, Andrew Epstein, a senior at Amherst College, conceived an 
original project for an art class. In order to make a statement about the 
futility of the war on drugs, he managed to ban the sale of coffee on the 
Amherst campus for 24 hours, and watched the pandemonium that ensued. His 
project made national news, including the front page of the New York Times.

Last night Epstein and Amherst College Students for a Sensible Drug Policy 
attempted to host a debate between two drug policy advocates - Deborah 
Small, public policy director for the pro-legalization Lindesmith Center, 
and Robert Housman, the former assistant director of the anti-legalization 
organization Strategic Planning - in order to foster discussion of drug 
policy issues on the Amherst campus.

Housman, however, was unable to attend, due to Congressional hearings on 
the September 11 attacks. In his absence, Small delivered a lecture last 
night in Converse Hall on the arguments for legalization, and led the 
audience in an open discussion.

Rather than argue that legalization could lead to greater public safety, a 
common argument of decriminalization advocates, Small focused on the 
argument that drug laws, in theory, violate human rights.

"All of the drugs you buy or take are things your body makes naturally," 
Small told the assembled audience. "Our body makes opiates, and stimulants, 
and things that make you sleep. Nothing you put into your body is foreign. 
Using drugs is a way of increasing the body's own ability to alter its 

"As long as human beings have been on this planet," she continued, "we have 
looked for ways to alter consciousness. There is no society that didn't 
have some ritual around the altering of consciousness. Some of it was 
attached to religious practice, some was erotic, and some was recreational. 
It's nothing new."

Small pointed out that medical author Dr. Andrew Weil has noted that young 
children often attempt to alter their consciousness.

"Children engage in behavior with similar effects to drugs," she said. 
"Holding their breath, running around in circles, holding their head below 
the water in the bathtub. For the most part it's a pleasant thing."

A great deal of Small's lecture dealt with what she perceives as hypocrisy 
on the part of the government in accepting some drugs but denouncing others.

"Some people would say that it's perfectly reasonable for a society to 
prefer coffee over cocaine," she said. "I would say, how? And why? And does 
that make any sense?"

She pointed out that Ritalin, a drug regularly given legally to 
schoolchildren, has many similar properties to cocaine.

At one point, she asked if anyone in the audience felt that marijuana, as a 
drug, was more harmful than caffeine or cigarettes.

"I don't know about all y'all," said Small, "but I tried marijuana, and I 
liked it. It didn't make me feel a whole lot different than drinking a 
couple of glasses of wine. But you can go to jail for that!

"I don't know how many people in this room smoke cigarettes," she 
continued. "When you talk about drugs with such a high level of 
addictiveness, I can not think of many others...but we as a society have 
built in regular fixing times for people - cigarette breaks, coffee breaks."

A crucial point of Small's argument was that drugs, even if dangerous, 
should be legal for those who wish to do them simply because it is not the 
business of the state to intrude in such matters.

"The goal of the war on drugs is to control people's personal behavior," 
she said repeatedly.

While Housman was not in attendance to present the anti-legalization 
argument, many audience members took Smalls to task on her views. 
Particularly controversial was her assertion that pregnant women should not 
be punished for using drugs such as cocaine.

One audience member, who described her experiences babysitting for a child 
with fetal alcohol syndrome, accused Small of being more concerned with the 
rights of an expecting mother to use drugs than the right of a child to be 
"born healthy".

"If you're a pregnant woman who has a problem with obesity or an eating 
disorder, you can harm your child just as much [as if you used drugs]," she 
responded. "You can harm your child by taking in too much salt. Are we 
going to pass laws that mandate that people not do that?"

Erica Pollack, a senior double major in Art and Neuroscience, also 
questioned Small's rationale.

"If a child is born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and its mother turns to 
the government for aid and health care, shouldn't the government be able to 
make some restrictions on bringing that sort of child into the world?" she 

Other attendees expressed a sense that Small was ignoring the negative 
aspects of drug usage.

"My concern is that, even though I can understand how we might be better 
off without drug laws, it's still not a [good situation]," said Rachel 
Speer, a freshman. "I don't see how your policy addresses that clearly. 
There are drug problems whether we have drug laws or not."

In response to a question about the connections of race and the war on 
drugs, Small decried current drug policies as racist. She pointed out that 
a far higher percentage of people of color are incarcerated for using and 
selling drugs than whites.

"Go to any state in this country," she said. "Got to prisons, and see who's 
there. There's no state that doesn't have more black, brown and poor people 
in prison for drugs than anybody else."

She attacked the mentality that white women need to be protected from 
drug-using men of color. She said that she was especially disturbed by a 
scene from the film Traffic a movie she said she otherwise admired, which 
showed a black drug dealer taking advantage of young white woman.

"The one thing they should not have done was show a black man administering 
drugs to a white woman so that he could have his way with her sexually," 
she said. "Other than Don Cheadle, the only black guy you saw was the naked 
drug dealer standing over the naked white girl." In concluding her lecture, 
Small urged that Americans not turn away from what she sees as a violation 
of civil liberties.

"You might say, 'I'm not the police officer who arrested these people. I'm 
not the judge who sentenced these people. Why am I accountable?' But you 
are accountable - for what a society does in your name."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart