HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Stoning The Drug War
Source: New York Magazine
Pubdate: July 23, 1998
Author: Walter Kirn


The drug war, Mike Gray argues in Drug Crazy, makes governments and
law-enforcement people feel good, but it's the most dangerous of addictions.

Having raged on for more than 80 years now, and with no end in sight, the
federal government's war on drugs has suffered failures and achieved

First, the failures.

Prisons the size of international airports, though far more crowded and
markedly less secure. Organized rub-outs, open-air gunplay, and
innocent-bystander-maiming crossfire that makes Capone's Prohibition-era
Chicago seem like Knott's Berry Farm.  Street gangs whose monthly net
exceeds Netscape's, equipped with communication networks, command
structures, and high-tech weaponry that could take Iraq.

Lawmen licensed to seize, without due process, for their own institutional
enrichment, your house, your car, your watch, and the crumpled twenty in
your back pocket. A legal system racially rent asunder. Banks turned into
Laundromats for dirty currency.  Precinct houses that keep alive the spirit
of the old Times Square, and tens of millions of American citizens whose
own blood and urine, extracted under duress, can stand up in court, the
Fifth Amendment be damned, and send their own host organisms straight to jail.

Now for the successes.

For anyone of virtually any age who wishes to obtain them, heroin,
marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, and LSD, in ever more potent and
appealing forms, remain abundantly available.

So much for a balanced weighing of an issue that no longer warrants such a
courtesy. According to Drug Crazy, Mike Gray's compelling rant against the
ruinous, big-budget witch hunt that has unleashed more evils than it's
unearthed and devastated vaster legions of sinners than Jehovah at his
grumpiest, the drug war can end in one of only two ways: a strongman-on
strongman national Ultimate Fighting match lamely refereed by dirty
officials (the Blade Runner scenario) or an orderly conditional surrender
to imperfect human nature (the Benjamin Spock Memorial Peace Plan).

Gray doesn't hide his preference for the second course, and the evidence he
piles up for his case, historical, scientific, and anecdotal, fills only
200 pages yet still comes off as overkill. Gray knows he's right from
sentence one, and by sentence 100 the thoughtful reader does, too, which
makes for a book that's less an argument than a muted rant. Its veneer of
reason barely hides Gray's apoplexy, and that's Drug Crazy's strength. The
time for fighting stupidity with intelligence (seldom an effective strategy
anyway) is over. Now it's time to pour on the contempt.

Drug Crazy begins with a competent reconstruction of the drug war's
turn-of-the-century early stirrings, which Gray writes began as a collision
of social reform and religious fundamentalism. Originally a stepchild to
the temperance movement, the move against opium -- a common ingredient in
over-the-counter cough elixirs, its chronic abusers mostly white and female
- -- was part of a domestic anti-Chinese racism and part of a subtle
diplomatic power play aimed at curbing British influence in Asia. The push
against cocaine was more direct: Get those drug-crazed niggers.

With a genius for engineering a quagmire exceeding even LBJ's and
McNamara's, the crusade's boobish point man, one Dr. Hamilton Wright (later
exposed as a heavy-duty boozer), drew up a battle plan that targeted
doctors first. Framed as a tax act, the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act
terrorized thousands of physicians who prescribed drugs to soothe addicted
patients. In the meantime, a quackish cure-all for addiction based on a
TNT-strength laxative absolved the crusaders of guilt for damning thousands
of newly minted drug fiends to an anguished, cold-turkey withdrawal. Just
flush out their guts and send them on their way.

The next tall white hat top ride into Drug City was not a doofus do-gooder
but an inflamed fanatic. Described by Gray with unstinting derision as a
law and order evangelist, Harry Anslinger headed the Treasury Department's
Federal Bureau of Narcotics, but his actual power base was in the private
sector. Crowned a sort of one-man FDA, Anslinger could approve or veto at
will pharmaceutical companies applications to market narcotic-based
painkillers. The King of Codeine, the Marquis of Morphine, he was perhaps
the grandest example to date of the drug war's metaphysical ambivalence,
its spiritual two-facedness.

Whether it's Oliver North allegedly importing loads of coke in the name of
Nicaraguan anti-communism, the CIA wading hip-deep into the opium trade in
the Vietnam-era golden Triangle, President Bush deforesting Bolivia while
posing for handshake P.R. shots with Noriega, or the local undercover cop
cruising with the top down on his freshly seized Ferrari, the enterprise
seems to breed an evil more rarefied than payoff-style corruption.

The good guys create the scarcity that guarantees the bad guys profits, the
bad guys fan the instability that secures the good guys jobs, and all too
often both sides find common cause protecting their synergistic racket from
socialist agitators, zealous legalizers, internal-affairs units, and other
interlopers. They're mutually nourishing parasites, and their hearts may
someday beat as one.

The fiery doomsdays that Gray sees coming if things don't cool off soon (a
war between the producing nations and those that consume their products,
which seems to me far-fetched, or the subversion of U.S. civil society,
which strikes me as already having begun) seem appealingly cathartic
compared with the slow-roast status quo of racist law enforcement,
diminished privacy, and the class of new untouchables who fail to score
A-pluses on their urine tests.

Gray's point -- and though he's not the first to make it, he has honed and
hardened it enough to pierce the thickest skulls -- is that the drug war
isn't now and likely never was, an authentic conflict between enemies but a
hysterical splitting of the whole, dividing blacks from whites,
suburbanites from city dwellers, and, most cruelly and injuriously, doctors
from the patients.

If 10-year-olds can take Ritalin, an amphetamine, without dismembering
their soccer coaches, and California cancer patients can smoke dope without
raping their nurses, who put the fiend in drug fiend in the first place?
The chemicals or the cops? Grays book, justifiably bitter and sarcastic as
well as lucid and informative, tells the drug-war story straight and true.

Criminalization is what makes criminals, not hemp leaves, and demonization
is what makes demons, not processed poppy juice.  Drug addiction is hell
for many addicts, and war is hell, too, according to the old saying. What
ever convinced us that two hells make a heaven?

Walter Kirn's 1997-98 reviews are available at

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Checked-by: Mike Gogulski