Pubdate: Fri, 18 Jul 2003
Source: TomPaine com (US Web)
Author: Daniel Forbes
Note: Daniel Forbes writes on social policy and has testified before both
the U.S. Senate and the House about his work. You can contact him  Editor's Note: This article was orginally published in
Electron Press, and is reprinted with permission of the author.
Note: MAP posted as an exception to MAP's web only source policies.
Bookmark: (Forbes, Daniel)


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

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

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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