We interrupt our coverage of the war on terrorism to check in with that other permanent conflict against a stateless enemy, the war on drugs. To judge by the glee at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the drug warriors have just accomplished the moral equivalent of routing the Taliban — helping to halt a relentless jihad against the nation's drug laws.
By BILL KELLER
Ballot initiatives in Ohio (treatment rather than prison for nonviolent drug offenders), Arizona (the same, plus making marijuana possession the equivalent of a traffic ticket, and providing free pot for medical use) and Nevada (full legalization of marijuana) lost decisively this month. Liberalization measures in Florida and Michigan never even made it to the ballot.
Some of this was due to the Republican election tide. Some was generational — boomer parents like me, fearful of seeing our teenagers become drug-addled slackers. (John Walters, the White House drug czar, shrewdly played on this anxiety by hyping the higher potency of today's pot with the line, "This is not your father's marijuana.") Some may have been a reluctance to loosen any social safety belts when the nation is under threat. Certainly a major factor was that proponents of change, who had been winning carefully poll-tested ballot measures, state by state, since California in 1996, found themselves facing a serious and well-financed opposition, cheered on by Mr. Walters.
The truly amazing thing is that 30 years into the modern war on drugs, the discourse is still focused disproportionately on marijuana rather than more important and excruciatingly hard problems like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines.
The drug liberalizers — an alliance of legal reformers, liberals, libertarians and potheads — dwell on marijuana in part because a lot of the energy and money in their campaign comes from people who like to smoke pot and want the government off their backs. Also, marijuana has provided them with their most marketable wedge issue, the use of pot to relieve the suffering of AIDS and cancer patients. Never mind that the medical benefits of smoking marijuana are still mostly unproven (in part because the F.D.A. almost never approves the research and the pharmaceuticals industry sees no money in it). The issue may be peripheral, but it appeals to our compassion, especially when the administration plays the heartless heavy by sending SWAT teams to arrest people in wheelchairs. Thus a movement that started, at least in the minds of reform sponsors like the billionaire George Soros, as an effort to reduce the ravages of both drugs and the war on drugs, has become mostly about pot smoking.
The more interesting question is why the White House is so obsessed with marijuana. The memorable achievements of Mr. Walters's brief tenure have been things like cutting off student loans for kids with pot convictions, threatening doctors who recommend pot to cancer patients and introducing TV commercials that have the tone and credibility of wartime propaganda. One commercial tells pot smokers that they are subsidizing terrorists. Another shows a stoned teenager discovering a handgun in Dad's desk drawer and dreamily shooting a friend. (You'll find it at www.mediacampaign.org. Watch it with the sound off and you'd swear it was an ad for gun control.)
Drug czars used to draw a distinction between casual-use drugs like marijuana and the hard drugs whose craving breeds crime and community desolation. But this is not your father's drug czar. Mr. Walters insists marijuana is inseparable from heroin or cocaine. He offers two arguments, both of which sound as if they came from the same people who manufacture the Bush administration's flimsy economic logic.
One is that marijuana is a "gateway" to hard-drug use. Actually Mr. Walters, who is a political scientist but likes to sound like an epidemiologist, prefers to say that pot use is an "increased risk factor" for other drugs. The point in our conversation when my nonsense-alarm went off was when he likened the relationship between pot and hard drugs to that between cholesterol and heart disease. In fact, the claim that marijuana leads to the use of other drugs appears to be unfounded. On the contrary, an interesting new study by Andrew Morral of RAND, out in the December issue of the British journal Addiction, shows that the correlation between pot and hard drugs can be fully explained by the fact that some people, by virtue of genetics or circumstances, have a predisposition to use drugs.
Mr. Walters's other justification for turning his office into the War on Pot is the dramatic increase in the number of marijuana smokers seeking professional help. This, he claims, reflects an alarming rise in the number of people hooked on cannabis. But common sense and the government's own statistics suggest an alternative explanation: if you're caught with pot, enrolling in a treatment program is the price of avoiding jail. And marijuana arrests have doubled in less than a decade, to 700,000 a year, even as use of the drug has remained static. In other words, the stampede of pot smokers into treatment is probably not a sign of more dependency, but of more aggressive enforcement.
So what's really going on at the White House drug office? I can think of three answers. One is that they are sincerely worried about pot. Marijuana is not harmless. Regular pot smoking can mess with your memory and attention span, your immune system and fertility. Mr. Walters may feel the dangers justify a lot of hyperbole.
A second explanation is the old political-bureaucratic imperative. To justify a $19 billion drug control program you need a threat that touches middle-class voters — not just the few million mostly wretched, mostly inner-city, mostly nonvoting users of heroin and cocaine. And you want to be able to claim success. When he appointed Mr. Walters, President Bush announced he wanted "measurable results," and the measure would be a reduction in the number of people who admit to being recent drug users — 10 percent by 2004. Well, since three-fourths of illicit drug users are pot smokers, the easy way to get the numbers down is to attack the least important aspect of the drug problem. That will give President Bush some bogus victories to boast about when he runs for re-election.
The third reason is the culture war. Mr. Walters is a veteran of the conservative political bunkers, where pot is viewed as a manifestation of moral degeneracy. "It's still about the war in Vietnam and growing your hair long," says Mark Kleiman, a drug law expert at U.C.L.A. and a thoughtful centrist in a debate monopolized by extremes. "It's the 60's being replayed again and again and again — the S.D.S. versus the football team." For this White House, to give ground on pot would be a moral surrender.
Mr. Kleiman's view, which I find persuasive, is that the way to deal with marijuana is to remove criminal penalties for possession, use (recreational or medicinal) and cultivation of small amounts, but not to legalize sale. It's silly and costly to treat people as outlaws for enjoying a drug that is roughly as addictive as caffeine and far less destructive than tobacco or alcohol. At the same time, the inexorable logic of a legal marketplace would mean a lot more consumption and abuse. Consider this statistic: Fifty percent of the liquor industry's revenues are derived from alcoholics — people who down at least four drinks every day. The sin business, whether it's a private liquor company or a state-run lottery, may preach responsible behavior, but it thrives on addiction.
Once you're past pot, you face the gloomy landscape of hard drugs, along with newer chemical worries like Ecstasy. If your experience of the hard-core drug world is mostly from movies like "Traffic" or two splendid HBO series, "The Corner" and "The Wire," you may be inclined to despair of easy answers. You would not be wrong. The moralistic drug war has overstuffed our prisons, left communities fatherless, fed corruption, consumed vast quantities of law enforcement time and money, and led us into some cynical foreign ventures, all without making drugs scarcer or more expensive. Legalization, on the other hand, means less crime and inner-city misery, but more addicts.
The things worth doing are incremental and unglamorous and lacking in demagogic appeal. They aim not at winning a spurious war but at minimizing harm — both the harm caused by drugs, and the harm caused by draconian enforcement. Almost everyone (including Mr. Walters, in principle) agrees that diverting drug users into treatment, preferably backed by the threat of jail, is much better than consigning them to prison. But liberalizers are all carrot, and drug warriors are all stick. The drug czar who so eagerly intervened in Arizona and Nevada has kept his distance from efforts to humanize New York's merciless and failed Rockefeller drug laws.
Drug reform requires not only money, creativity and patience, but also the political courage to face down ideologues. And political courage, you may have noticed, is a lot harder to come by than drugs.
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