Stop the War

The war on drugs is, simply, a war on sanity. It is a failed policy of prohibition, focused primarily on urban blacks and Latinos, that has done little more than fill our jails, overtax our police departments and turn an entire population of addicts into criminals.

It has created an underground economy that thrives on violence and greed, an economy that appears to offer those who enter its maze instant gratification and riches, but more often than not leaves its participants dead or in jail.

And it has resulted in dangerous attacks on our civil liberties through the use of neighborhood drug sweeps, the denial of housing to the families of drug dealers, motor vehicle stops made based on the color of the driver's skin and eased search and seizure rules.

We spend about 70 percent of all federal anti-drug money on law enforcement and the control of our national borders, crafted mandatory sentencing laws that punish nonviolent offenders with years and years of hard time crowding our jails and destroying generations.

The drug war is a policy driven by the belief that taking a hard line on drugs is what sells during political elections, that candidates who do not get behind the latest anti-drug gimmick will be swept from office by someone tougher and meaner.

Perhaps things are changing. Voters in six states and the District of Columbia indicated their willingness to take a different tack when they approved measures allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. All told, voters in seven states and D.C., which account for about one-fifth of the electorate, have now endorsed "medical marijuana," despite widespread opposition from local, state and federal office-holders and the law enforcement community. [In fact, Congress forbade the release of the final vote in the District of Columbia.]

Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center drug policy institute, told William Greider in the Dec. 24 issue of Rolling Stone that the referenda will put pressure on elected leaders to find a different approach to drug abuse and use.

"Those politicians who thought there was no cost to indulging in drug-war demagoguery may now find themselves in an argument with their own voters," he told Greider. "They don't want to face up to that, but the American people will no longer be duped by such inflammatory language."

The medical-marijuana movement, Greider points, was led by an array of public health workers and those stricken by AIDS and cancer and their families.

"I saw I had to prescribe marijuana for my patients, and I saw that it worked," hospice physician Rob Killian of Seattle told Greider. "All drugs have a dangerous side, but as physicians, we are trained to administer pharmaceuticals in a safe, appropriate manner. My patients who are suffering and dying are not criminals."

The results are an indication that voters are willing to move beyond the what Eva Bertram and Kenneth Sharpe have called "a dead-end, partisan debate over who stands tougher against drug use and dealing." (The Nation, Jan. 6, 1997)

Unfortunately, those who've been waging America's "War on Drugs" do not appear ready to listen. The president and his administration repeatedly have turned a deaf ear to the medical marijuana argument, promising to prosecute health-care professionals who suggest their patients may benefit from smoking marijuana. And while the administration has said it will listen if scientific evidence is presented that shows marijuana to have therapeutic benefits, it has allowed studies of the drug to be stymied by politics.

"They speak in two different voices," Nadelmann told Greider. "One ridicules medical marijuana, the patients and doctors. The other approach is to say, 'Let the science prevail.' Yet any time the medical-marijuana studies come up through their system of scientific review and gain legitimacy, they are cut off by political decisions."

There are alternatives to the current madness--some of which have been endorsed by some influential members of the law enforcement and public health communities--alternatives that could go along way toward restoring safety to our streets and sanity to our lives.

These reforms include legalization of marijuana and the decriminalization of other drugs, free and open access to treatment and needle exchange programs. Their advocates say these efforts can "reduce the harmful consequences of drug use to the individual, his or her loved ones and the community as a whole" (Bertram and Sharpe)--which ultimately should be the guiding principal of U.S. drug policy.

The alternatives look like this:

* Legalize pot. Marijuana is a relatively harmless drug that has a mellowing effect on those who use it and has few addictive properties. Turning those who use the drug into criminals makes no sense and it keeps the drug out of the hands of cancer, and AIDS patients and those who suffer from epilepsy and other nervous system disorders.

There is a load of evidence that shows that using marijuana helps cancer and AIDS patients maintain their weight and their strength, which in turn helps their bodies fight off infections and viruses. And it also aids them in avoiding mood swings. There also is anecdotal evidence that suggests the drug has a salutary effect on patients who suffer from epilepsy and other nervous system disorders.

Legalization--which would bring with it government controls--also would guarantee a safe supply of marijuana that is free of contaminants and of a known and consistent potency and price, rather than force users to deal with the underground economy. This is similar to the way that alcohol, tobacco and over-the-counter and prescription drugs are regulated.

And there would be the added bonus of drug tax revenue.

* Decriminalize other drugs, with strict controls on their use. This would include the various opiates, which already are used by physicians to control pain; the various cocaine derivatives; psychedelics, amphetamines and barbiturates. By decriminalizing these drugs, we could reduce the role of the criminal in their distribution and take the illicit profit out of their sale, while regulating their potency and purity.

Tied to this would be free and open access to treatment facilities for addicts seeking to turn their lives around.

* Make free needles available to intravenous drug users to help slow the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases.

As Bertram and Sharpe point out, more than a third of all AIDS cases are associated with intravenous drug use. "Passed on through the sharing of contaminated needles, the AIDS virus is contracted each year by 10,000 drug users, their sex partners and their children--the equivalent of one to preventable HIV infections per hour, including the majority of AIDS cases in children under 13."

Needle-exchange programs (NEPs), which provide sterile needles to addicts and encourage them to seek treatment, have been implemented across the country. And according to Bertram and Sharpe, "Mounting evidence demonstrates that NEPs can significantly slow the spread of AIDS and do not encourage increased drug use."

* Alter the way we view drug abuse and drug-abuse prevention. We need to start looking at drug addiction as a public health issue, as we do alcoholism and AIDS, and not as a criminal issue.

This means educating the public with real information, not the scare tactics that generally pass for drug education in this country.

People need to understand the physiological effects of various drugs--including those over-the-counter remedies and prescription medications we seem to be addicted to--and the very real pleasures that these drugs can provide. People need to understand both the ups and the downs of toking on a joint, shooting up or knocking back a shooter of Jack Daniels, and they need to understand that the downside can be far greater than the upside.

As former Secretary of State George Schultz has said, "We're not really going to get anywhere until we take the criminality out of the drug business and the incentives for criminality out of it."

Hank Kalet is news editor for two central New Jersey weekly newspapers. Contact the Lindesmith Center, 400 W 59th St., New York NY 10019; phone 212-548-0695; web site

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