Pubdate: 10 May 1999
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 1999 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Salim Muwakkil


America's war on drugs strongly confirms the adage that truth is war's
first casualty.

While we're fed scare stories and outright lies about the "controlled
substances" our government has demonized, more dangerous drugs are being
pushed legally through a pharmaceutical industry that is reaping huge
profits by offering the same kind of chemical relief.

But that shouldn't be surprising: The Partnership for a Drug-Free America,
that group responsible for those demonizing ads ("This is your brain on
drugs . . .," et al.), receives most of its funding from that very same
pharmaceutical industry.

They certainly can afford it; the inflation-adjusted revenue of major
pharmaceutical companies in 1998 was $81 billion, more than four times what
it was in 1970. About 24 percent of that growth derives from drugs designed
for pleasure, vanity or convenience.

These companies' advertising budgets have been soaring in sophisticated
attempts to hook Americans on the legal drug habit, even as they lavishly
fund propaganda urging a drug-free society.

That particular contradiction is central to the argument made by Joshua
Wolf Shenk in an article entitled "America's Altered States" in the May
edition of Harper's. "When does legal relief of pain become illegal pursuit
of pleasure?" is the article's subtitle, and Shenk examines that question
at great length. He finds that contradictory attitudes about drug use are
widespread in this culture. We appear to believe, he writes, "that altering
the body and mind is morally wrong when done with some substances and
salutary when done with others."

For example, Shenk explains, there is little difference between the
physiological affects of the drug MDMA (street name: ecstasy) and that of
Prozac. "Both drugs work by increasing the presence of serotonin in the
brain," he notes. His article explores the social calculus that approves
Prozac and makes money for its makers, Eli Lilly & Co., but demonizes MDMA
and jails its purveyors. He finds racial biases deeply implicated.

Those biases allow us to criminalize the urge for chemical relief among
members of minority and countercultural groups, while tolerating it in the
mainstream. And that's nothing new, as Shenk explains; this country's
restrictive drug policies have always been inspired by a mixture of
xenophobia and commercialism.

Prohibitive drug laws "were all, in part, a reaction to inflamed fears of
foreigners or minority groups." Theodore Roosevelt's drug adviser warned,
for example, that "cocaine is often a direct incentive to the crime of rape
by the Negroes," he notes.

"Opium was associated with the Chinese. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act
targeted Mexican immigrants," Shenk says.

Legal drugmakers with markets to protect inflamed those fears, and the dual
forces of lucre and racism still fuel the current drug war. According to
Justice Department figures, the number of incarcerated drug offenders
increased 12-fold from 1980, when the drug war began in earnest, to 1995.

The U.S. now imprisons more of its citizens percentage-wise than any
country on Earth, and this burgeoning jail population is disproportionately
composed of young, minority drug offenders. A 1996 Justice Department study
found that while 12 percent of the nation's drug users were black, they
represented 60 percent of those in state prisons for drug felonies.

America's drug war is producing global cartels of illicit drug dealers
while fueling crime, racial animosity and assaults on civil liberties at
home. It is diverting untold resources from more productive social

But there may be hope; war propaganda has failed on at least one front.

Americans in six states--Arizona, Alaska, California, Nevada, Oregon and
Washington--have passed ballot initiatives favoring medical use of
marijuana and six more states are being targeted this year.

Since marijuana prohibition is central to drug war strategy, those
referenda represented serious battlefield losses. Voters emphatically
rejected drug czar Barry McCaffrey's attempt to dismiss medical pot as a
"cruel hoax."

The National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine vindicated the
electorate's wisdom when it released a report in March finding that
marijuana has clear medicinal value for patients suffering from a variety
of illnesses, including cancer and AIDS. The report also refuted the
argument that marijuana serves as a "gateway" to more dangerous drugs like
cocaine and heroin.

It might have added other substances to that dangerous list. "Legal
medications are the principal cause of between 45,000 and 200,000 American
deaths each year," Shenk notes. "Marijuana, though not harmless," he adds,
"has never been shown to have caused a single death."

It's clear we would rather indulge our addiction to war metaphors and
racial biases than seriously address the problem of drug dependency.
Because of those unfortunate fixations the American people have become the
drug war's ultimate casualty. 

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MAP posted-by: Mike Gogulski