Pubdate: Fri, 28 Nov 2003
Source: Boston Phoenix (MA)
Copyright: 2003 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group.
Author: Eric E. Sterling
Note: Eric Sterling is President of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, 
Silver Spring, Maryland


Recently, the Boston Phoenix sent three writers to cover the New England 
governors' drug summit at Faneuil Hall, organized by the White House Office 
of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Their stories were collectively 
headlined, Drugs: Why Can't Politicians Face Facts?

I have participated in numerous such events. From 1979 to 1989, I was 
counsel to the US House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary. In 
1988, I helped write the legislation creating the ONDCP. I have set up or 
attended at least 100 congressional anti-drug hearings or events over the 
years. Unfortunately, your front-page headline offers a generally 
well-founded lament. And the causes of our politicians' disconnect from the 
reality of drug use and the consequences of drug policy must be identified 
if we are to get beyond the policy failures in which we are mired.

First, it does not seem that those politicians who do face facts are made 
to suffer for it - at least by their constituencies. US Representative 
Barney Frank (D-MA), for example, is well known for having sponsored 
medical-marijuana legislation, and has in no way been punished by his 
constituents. Similarly, here in Maryland, State Delegate Don Murphy (R), 
representing a conservative district, sponsored our state medical-marijuana 
bill, but never faced electoral jeopardy. In fact, a Republican state 
senator here, Tim Ferguson, was targeted and defeated in the Republican 
primary for casting the decisive vote against medical marijuana in committee.

But Murphy's experience illustrates a very important factor. Once Murphy 
sponsored the bill, he became the butt of jokes among his legislative 
colleagues: " What's that smell? " " Can you get me something? " A 
politician who faces facts and questions current drug policy risks becoming 
the object of constant ridicule. The news media - with a few notable 
exceptions - are equally to blame. Pun-filled headlines, sly references to 
drug use, and sloppy reporting are the rule when the subject is illegal 
drugs. In a typical story about the introduction of a medical-marijuana 
bill, the lead and succeeding paragraphs make jokes and cute observations 
about the clothing, hairstyles, audience, music, etc. at a 
pro-medical-marijuana event. These cheap attempts denigrate the seriousness 
of the legislation.

Ultimately, politicians' unwillingness to face the facts about illegal 
drugs stems from fear of losing legitimacy, not fear of electoral defeat or 
challenge. Driving this fear is the seemingly irresistible compulsion of 
the nation's editors and reporters to turn to journalistic cliches about 
pot when writing about drug-policy reform.

If the nation thinks the problems of drug abuse are serious, then we must 
stop sacrificing serious discussion of the alternatives for the cheap 
laughs of old and not-very-funny pot jokes.
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