Pubdate: Thu, 28 Jul 2005
Source: Rolling Stone (US)
Copyright: 2005 Straight Arrow Publishers Company, L.P.
Author: Robert Dreyfuss
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)
Bookmark: (Walters, John)
Bookmark: (Youth)


Forget Meth And Other Hard-Core Drugs -- The Administration Would Rather 
Waste Taxpayer Dollars In An All-Out Assault On Marijuana

America's long-running war on drugs has, literally, gone to pot.

More than two decades after it was launched in response to the spread of 
crack cocaine -- and in the midst of a brand-new wave of methamphetamine 
use sweeping the country -- the government crackdown has shifted from hard 
drugs to marijuana.

Pot now accounts for nearly half of drug arrests nationwide -- up from 
barely a quarter of all busts a decade ago. Spurred by a Supreme Court 
decision in June affirming the right of federal agents to crack down on 
medical marijuana,

The Drug Enforcement Administration has launched a series of high-profile 
raids against pot clinics in California, and police in New York, Memphis 
and Philadelphia have been waging major offensives against pot smokers that 
are racking up thousands of arrests.

By almost any measure, however, the war has been as monumental a failure as 
the invasion of Iraq. All told, the government sinks an estimated $35 
billion a year into the War on Drugs. Yet illegal drugs remain cheap and 
plentiful, and coca cultivation in the Andes -- where the Bush 
administration has spent $5.4 billion to eradicate cocaine -- rose 
twenty-nine percent last year. "Drug prices are at an all-time low, drug 
purity is at an all-time high, and polls show that drugs are more available 
than ever," says Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy 
Alliance, a drug-reform organization in Washington, D.C. Drug smugglers and 
South American cocaine growers, he adds, are fast developing new ways to 
evade U.S. eradication efforts. "All they have to do is double their 
efforts," he says. "They can adapt more quickly than the government can."

Given the government's failure to halt the flow of drugs, many soldiers who 
eagerly enlisted in the war are beginning to desert the cause.

In March, the archconservative American Enterprise Institute published a 
report -- titled "Are We Losing the War on Drugs?" -- that concluded 
"criminal punishment of marijuana use does not appear to be justified." 
Scores of states and cities, whose jails and courts are bursting at the 
seams with people serving lengthy sentences for minor drug offenses, are 
rejecting harsh sentencing laws backed by the White House. And most schools 
and employers are deciding not to test students and workers for drugs, 
despite a national testing push by John Walters, the tough-talking drug 
warrior who became America's "drug czar" in 2001. Even the Pentagon, 
engaged in fighting real wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has quietly cut back 
on its efforts to interdict drug traffickers in the Caribbean and Central 

"Americans will be disappointed to learn that the War on Drugs is not what 
they thought it was," says Mitch Earleywine, associate professor of 
psychology at the University of Southern California. "Many of us grew up 
supporting this war, thinking it would imprison high-level traffickers of 
hard drugs and keep cocaine and heroin off the streets.

Instead, law enforcement officers devote precious hours on hundreds of 
thousands of arrests for possession of a little marijuana."

Since taking over as drug czar, Walters has launched an extraordinary 
effort to depict marijuana as an addictive "gateway" to other, more 
powerful drugs. "Marijuana use, especially during the teen years, can lead 
to depression, thoughts of suicide and schizophrenia," he declared in May. 
Trying to capitalize on fears of terrorism, Walters has linked drugs to 
terror, running a much-derided series of television ads suggesting that the 
money marijuana users spend on pot winds up funding terrorist groups such 
as Al Qaeda.

"For Walters, it's all marijuana, all the time," says Graham Boyd, director 
of the Drug Law Reform Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "He 
is reinforcing the atmosphere that marijuana is the drug we should care 
about, and that the government will do everything it can, including locking 
everyone up, if that's what it comes to."

In June, the anti-pot crusade got a boost from the Supreme Court, which 
ruled that federal authorities can crack down on medical marijuana, even in 
states where it has been legalized.

A few weeks after the ruling, as part of Operation Urban Harvest, scores of 
federal agents swooped down on pot clubs that supply patients in San 
Francisco. They raided dozens of homes, businesses and growing areas, 
seizing 9,300 pot plants and arresting fifteen people on federal drug charges.

At one dispensary, the Herbal Relief Center, agents seized computer 
records, medical files and plants.

"We can't disregard the federal law," said Javier Pena, special agent in 
charge at the DEA. "The Supreme Court reiterates that we have the power to 
enforce the federal drug laws -- even if they are not popular.

We're going to continue to do that."

Since 1992, according to a recent analysis of federal crime statistics by 
the Sentencing Project, arrests for marijuana have soared from 300,000 a 
year to 700,000. The government spends an estimated $4 billion a year 
arresting and prosecuting marijuana crimes -- more than it spends on 
treating addiction for all drugs -- and more and more of those busts are 
for possession rather than dealing.

One in four people currently in state prisons for pot offenses are 
classified as "low-level offenders." In New York, arrests for possession -- 
which now account for nine of every ten busts -- are up twenty-five-fold 
during the past decade.

In Memphis, marijuana arrests are up nineteenfold, and large spikes have 
also been recorded in Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Houston.

Walters insists that the surge in arrests is having a "deterrent effect," 
scaring kids away from smoking pot. Testifying before Congress in February, 
he reported that the administration has exceeded its goal of reducing teen 
drug use by ten percent. "Over the past three years," he declared, "there 
has been a seventeen percent decrease in teenage drug use."

But in reality the numbers for pot use have remained remarkably steady. 
About a third of all teens and young adults report having smoked pot in the 
past year, as do one in seven adults over thirty-five. And despite the 
government's all-out assault on marijuana, there's still plenty to go around.

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, part of the Justice 
Department, as much as 19,000 tons of pot are still harvested each year in 
the United States, with more coming from abroad.

To catch more marijuana users, Walters has launched a nationwide effort to 
persuade schools to conduct drug tests on student athletes -- and even 
entire student populations. The drug czar has asked Congress for $25 
million to support drug testing next year, up from $10 million this year 
and just $2 million in 2004, and he is leading a series of national summits 
on student drug testing.

The Supreme Court has upheld drug testing of students involved in sports 
and other extracurricular activities, and the Bush administration believes 
"extracurricular activity" can be stretched to include any student who 
parks on campus. "The court did not elaborate on random drug testing of 
student populations," says Jennifer de Vallance, a spokeswoman for the 
Office of National Drug Control Policy. "But we think that schools would be 
on very safe ground to conduct that kind of testing."

Studies have shown, however, that such tests fail to deter students from 
using drugs.

They're also inaccurate: Because hard drugs such as cocaine and crack exit 
a user's system quickly, most tests manage to detect only marijuana use. 
"Drug testing is, in effect, marijuana testing, because that is what stays 
in your system," says Boyd of the ACLU. As a result, fewer than five 
percent of schools currently conduct drug tests, and many companies are 
giving up on the practice as well. According to a survey by the American 
Management Association, only forty-four percent of firms currently screen 
employees for drugs -- down from sixty-eight percent a decade ago. The 
administration is also running into widespread opposition over its efforts 
to force welfare recipients and public-housing residents to pass drug tests 
in order to qualify for benefits. Michigan, the only state that requires 
welfare recipients to undergo drug testing, recently suspended its program 
when a federal court declared such testing illegal.

Even more striking, states are backing away from the tough 
mandatory-minimum sentencing laws that have put tens of thousands of pot 
smokers behind bars for years, stretching state budgets to the breaking 
point. Unlike federal drug hawks, who continue to call for even harsher 
penalties, more than two dozen states have rolled back or repealed state 
mandatory minimums. "The federal government continues its love affair with 
mandatory minimums, but the states are moving in the other direction," says 
Monica Pratt, spokeswoman for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "Most 
people aren't worrying as much about drugs these days. It's just not at the 
top of their list anymore."

The war on pot diverts money and manpower from fighting far more harmful 
drugs. While the feds target pot smokers, a burgeoning meth epidemic is 
swamping rural communities, especially in the West and the Great Plains. 
Nearly half of state and local law-enforcement agencies identify meth as 
their greatest drug threat -- compared with only one in eight for marijuana 
- -- and more than 1 million Americans use the highly addictive drug, which 
is linked to violent crime, explosions and fires at meth labs, severe 
health problems, and child and family abuse.

In 2003, drug agents busted a staggering 10,182 meth labs, and the fight 
against meth is straining the resources of local police and sheriffs in 
small towns. But the White House has proposed slashing federal aid for 
rural narcotics teams by half. "If those cuts go through, they're going to 
totally wipe us out," says Lt. Steve Dalton, leader of a drug task force in 
southwest Missouri.

Over the past four years, as the War on Drugs has been eclipsed by the War 
on Terror, the administration has been forced to scale back its expensive 
and ineffective efforts to stem the tide of drugs from South America. 
President Bush has barely mentioned drugs since September 11th, and key 
federal agencies, from the Department of Defense to the FBI, are quietly 
bowing out of the anti-drug crusade to concentrate their attention on Iraq 
and Al Qaeda. "The number-one stated priority for the FBI is to prevent 
another attack," says a spokesman for the bureau, which has diverted 
hundreds of agents from its anti-drug task forces to anti-terrorism work. 
"Other things are not the primary focus.

We've had to retool."

For the agencies now grouped within the new Department of Homeland 
Security, the ones responsible for border security -- the Coast Guard, 
Immigration and Customs -- preventing terrorists from entering the country 
trumps their anti-drug mission.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, has shipped troops responsible for drug 
interdiction in South and Central America to the Middle East. Surveillance 
flights in the Caribbean have been cut back by more than two-thirds. "We're 
concerned about the ability of the Defense Department to continue to 
provide support to law enforcement for drug interdiction," says an aide to 
Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees 
the War on Drugs.

For the military, the drug war has become a convenient training ground for 
troops heading to Iraq and Afghanistan. Joint Task Force North, a unit 
under the U.S. Northern Command, is supposed to provide military assistance 
to U.S. law enforcement agencies, especially in Southwestern states along 
the Mexican border.

But after soldiers from a Stryker brigade based in Alaska recently spent 
sixty days training in "rugged desert terrain" to support the border 
patrol, they were promptly given their marching orders for Iraq.

"This is what we term a win-win situation," says Armando Carrasco, a 
Northcom spokesman. "We provide assistance, and we get training directly 
related to our activities."

Those "activities" have left the feds with fewer troops to fight the drug 
war. With America engaged in a quagmire in Iraq, at great cost in lives and 
money, the administration is simply unable to push its anti-drug agenda 
with the same intensity. "The president could sell the War on Drugs in 
peacetime," says Timothy Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice 
at the conservative Cato Institute. "But they don't want to embarrass 
themselves now that we're in the midst of an honest-to-God shooting war. To 
continue that kind of rhetoric in the middle of a real war, when American 
soldiers are getting blown up in Iraq, makes it look trivial.

There's just no comparison."
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