Pubdate: Mon, 23 Feb 2004
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Copyright: 2004 Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas
Author: Robyn Blumner
Note: Robyn Blumner writes for the St. Petersburg Times
Cited: Cato Institute
Cited: American Civil Liberties Union
Cited: Drug Policy Alliance
Bookmark: (Nadelmann, Ethan)
Bookmark: (Ashcroft, John)
Bookmark: (Walters, John)


The beauty of Thomas Jefferson's marketplace of ideas is that it opens
our society to all voices and all arguments, presuming the most
persuasive will rise to the top.

But those who promote the War on Drugs find this a dangerous concept.
Drug reform makes too much sense and in recent years has been too
compelling to voters.

Already, seven states and the District of Columbia have legalized
medical marijuana through voter initiatives (and two more states
through legislation), and a recent Gallup poll shows that 74 percent
of Americans are on that side of the issue.

To combat this outbreak of common sense, the drug warriors have fought
back with anti-democratic and repressive methods.

In the mid-1990s, the Cato Institute had its tax-exempt status
threatened by a New York Republican congressman incensed by the think
tank's sponsorship of a program on the failed drug war.

A few years later, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., successfully pushed an
amendment to prevent Washington, D.C., from counting the votes on its
medical marijuana initiative. The American Civil Liberties Union
overturned the bar in federal court. When the votes were finally
tallied, the initiative passed with 69 percent approval.

Barry McCaffrey, as drug czar under President Clinton, had to be sued
after he threatened doctors in California with the revocation of their
prescription-writing privileges if they recommended marijuana to
patients. The Bush administration continued the policy. But it was set
aside by a federal appellate court that said the threats violated the
free speech rights of doctors and patients.

And now Congress has just approved a law blatantly censoring pro-drug
reform messages.

It was the brainchild of Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., the religious
right's water carrier who, as chairman of the District of Columbia
Subcommittee, blocked city ordinances with which he disagreed, such as
those authorizing publicly funded abortions and needle-exchange programs.

Late last year, Istook added an amendment to the omnibus spending bill
that cuts off $3.1 billion in federal funds from transit authorities
nationwide if they accept ads that would appear in their bus, train or
subway systems and promote the reform of drug laws.

Large transit systems in big cities could forfeit tens of millions of
dollars if they don't comply. San Francisco has at least $100 million
at risk, New York at least $75 million and the Washington Metropolitan
Area Transportation Authority $85 million.

So once again, those who favor a less militant approach to the
nation's drug war -- and want only the freedom to make their case to
the public -- have been forced to trot back to federal court to secure
their First Amendment rights.

On Wednesday, the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance, among other
groups, filed suit against U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta
and the Washington Metro after the D.C. transit system refused to
accept a paid ad by the groups that proclaimed: "Marijuana Laws Waste
Billions of Taxpayer Dollars to Lock Up Non-Violent Americans."

The suit asks that the Istook amendment be found unconstitutional and
that the court rule that no funds be withheld from transit systems
that accept drug reform ads.

The case should be a legal slam dunk. If free speech means anything in
this country, it is that a drug reform ad should be permitted to
occupy the same bit of public space as an anti-abortion ad or a gun
control appeal.

"Congress keeps forgetting that there is no drug exception to the
Constitution," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug
Policy Alliance.

And get this: While drug reformers are being gagged by Congress, the
same spending bill provides $145 million for communicating the
opposite message. That whopping sum, funded by taxpayers, is to be
used to buy ads promoting the drug war, with a special emphasis on
demonizing marijuana.

What is really going on here? Nadelmann theorizes that for people like
Istook, Attorney General John Ashcroft and drug czar John Walters, the
war on drugs is less about crack and heroin than it is about marijuana.

"It's about the culture clash," Nadelmann says, "It's about continuing
ways to wage war against the '60s and '70s."

As Ashcroft continues to send DEA agents into California to raid legal
medical marijuana dispensaries and as Walters uses the public weal to
campaign against drug reform initiatives on state and local ballots,
it is clear that Nadelmann is right.

This is not about upholding the law but fighting a movement. The drug
warriors are fiercely antagonistic toward the shift in public opinion
on medical marijuana and other drug reforms, and their authoritarian
impulse is to shut down the free marketplace of ideas.

Apparently the competition is getting to be a bit too stiff.
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