HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Drug Czar Battles Hordes of Crazed Potheads!
Pubdate: Sun, 20 Apr 2003
Source: AlterNet (US Web)
Copyright: 2003 Independent Media Institute
Author: Silja J.A. Talvi, The Nation
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Walters, John)
Bookmark: (ONDCP Media Campaign)
Bookmark: (Question 9 (NV))


He'll huff, and he'll puff, and he'll blow your house down. He'll act out 
violently, get your next door neighbor's daughter pregnant, and he may even 
be supporting terrorism while he's at it.

This imaginary pot smoker composite is drug czar John Walters's big bad 
wolf, and only a duct-taped cottage window seems to stand in the path of 
the cannabis-fueled monster that lurks around the corner.

That, and $150 million earmarked in the current fiscal year to further a 
propagandistic anti-marijuana campaign, courtesy of Walters's Office of 
National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Full-page advertisements from the 
ONDCP in national newspapers and magazines (including The Nation) are just 
the latest gambit aimed at generating a heightened sense of parental 
anxiety and moral panic, suggesting that aggressive or violent behavior - 
and even psychoses - are among the consequences awaiting young people who 
try marijuana.

Health consequences for teens who smoke marijuana are, of course, something 
kids and their parents should talk about openly, but with real facts at 
hand. Compared to much more common binge drinking - to say nothing of 
consequent car accidents, and sexual and physical abuse - pot smoking 
should, logically, rank much lower on the list of parental concerns.

Not so, says the drug czar. Parents need to know that they are the 
"anti-drug" and millions are being spent telling them there's no drug more 
dangerous to the nation's teenagers than marijuana. And if the parent 
"fails" to protect society from a pot-smoking teen, then law enforcement is 
eager to step in, to the tune of nearly 126,000 juvenile arrests for 
marijuana offenses in 2000 alone. "We have policy on marijuana being made 
by fanatics and ideologues," says Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy 
Project in Washington, DC. "I think the current campaign is seen as a safe 
way to fire up their socially conservative base and to squash the movement 
to rethink our marijuana laws and drug laws in general," adds Mirken. "It's 
certainly not any sort of a rational attempt to prevent harm to our young 

For his part, Walters has been busy crisscrossing the nation, trying to 
extinguish even the slightest moves to alter the nation's draconian drug 
laws. In Nevada last year, Walters spent months campaigning to help defeat 
Question 9, which would have legalized and regulated marijuana there. When 
Nevada's Secretary of State demanded disclosure of the monies spent 
campaigning against a state initiative - as required by Nevada law - 
Walters and the ONDCP shrugged it off and simply refused to disclose. More 
recently, Walters and a small cadre of aides paid a well-timed visit to 
Santa Fe, New Mexico, just days before a medical marijuana initiative was 
introduced in the state legislature. The drug czar talked about the dangers 
of marijuana and handed out packets featuring pictures of smiling, 
drug-free Native American children.

And in Maryland in late March, Walters campaigned in full force, trying to 
prevent passage of that state's conservatively worded medical marijuana 
bill. The arguments for medical marijuana, Walters announced, make no more 
sense than "an argument for medical crack."

It's reefer madness, all over again. In the 1930s, Federal Bureau of 
Narcotics head Harry Anslinger oversaw a well-timed, post-alcohol 
prohibition crusade to criminalize and demonize the use of marijuana. 
Movies of the era, including the cult-classic Reefer Madness, depicted the 
"demon weed" changing the personalities of high school kids, who after 
partaking went insane, immersed themselves in "evil" jazz music and then 
went on murder sprees. Sometimes it seems that Walters is no more 
sophisticated than his crude 1930s-era counterpart, explains University of 
Southern California psychology professor Mitch Earleywine.

Professor Earleywine, who wrote last year's "Understanding Marijuana: A New 
Look at the Scientific Evidence," notes that Walters is resorting to 
emotionally provocative and hysterical imagery - including televised images 
of a teen being molested and another girl ending up with an unwanted 
pregnancy because they smoked weed. Another commercial shows a boy 
accidentally shooting his friend after getting high. "[That's] the best 
argument for gun control I've seen in years," says Earleywine. "But lies 
like these cost us credibility [with teens]. Even true statements about 
dangerous drugs like cocaine and heroin become suspect."

And there's absolutely no evidence that the ONDCP campaign, which included 
the creation of websites such as,, and (for entertainment and health 
journalists, no less), is working. An independent group hired by the 
government to evaluate the campaign last year found that there had been "no 
statistically significant decline in marijuana use, to date, and some 
evidence of an increase in use from 2000 to 2001...Also there's no tendency 
for those reporting more exposure to Campaign messages to hold more 
desirable beliefs."

Perhaps in response to this study, the ONDCP announced on April 1 that it 
was ending its "drugs=terrorism" campaign in favor of other approaches. At 
the same time, the drug czar's office also mentioned that it was putting a 
stop to the aforementioned annual study.

The persistence of grossly exaggerated antidrug propaganda has been a 
uniquely American approach since Anslinger's time. Only today, the stakes 
are higher, with the drug-war budget at record levels: Nearly $20 billion 
for the current fiscal year, according to analysis from Common Sense for 
Drug Policy. The lifelong societal consequences for a drug arrest are ever 
more severe in the form of denied student aid, public housing and welfare 
to those with felony drug records. As millions of ex-offenders have found 
out, decent, well-paying jobs are nearly impossible to come by once a drug 
charge has found its way onto a criminal record.

In 2001, on average, marijuana offenders served more than three years in 
federal prison. But much longer prison terms - even life sentences - for 
marijuana-related offenses are being meted out, disrupting and sometimes 
destroying the lives of mostly ordinary, otherwise law-abiding Americans. 
Altogether, nearly 734,000 people were arrested in the United States for a 
marijuana-related offense in 2000, the most recent year for which such 
figures are available. Of those arrests, according to the FBI's division of 
Uniform Crime Reports, 88 percent were for possession.

In perhaps the most devastating example of a drug-war policy gone awry, a 
married couple, Dennis and Denise Schilling, chose to end their lives 
rather than face a house forfeiture and time in prison. They had been 
arrested for selling $120 worth of marijuana to an undercover police 
office, who subsequently raided their house and arrested the couple in 
Wisconsin last fall. After his parents hung themselves in a motel, son 
Joshua Schilling was spared prison for his part in the small-scale sale but 
sentenced to thousands of dollars in fines, three years' probation and 
other assorted forms of punishment. "Perhaps someday, people like me will 
not be so persecuted," Denise Schilling wrote in her suicide note. Perhaps 
someday, indeed.

- -

Silja J.A. Talvi writes on prison and criminal justice issues for In These 
Times, the Christian Science Monitor, The Nation and other publications. 
Her work appears in the newly released anthology, "Prison Nation" 
(Routledge, 2003).
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