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Grey Literature - DPF: Drug Prohibition & Conscience of Nations 1990
Monday, 01 October 1990 00:00



If there is a human symbol of what this volume and the Drug Policy Foundation are all about, it is Francis L. Young. He is a federal employee in his early 60s, courtly, reserved, has never even seen a marijuana cigarette, and has no association with the reform movement. Yet, he is reported to be a pariah within his agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Francis Young's offense was that he went against the prevailing official dogma and listened with an open mind to all the conflicting facts presented to him in a recent dispute. Mr. Young is the chief administrative law judge of the DEA. This means that he has the power to preside over contested fact-finding inquiries and to issue decisions which, however, are not binding on his boss, the Administrator of the DEA. The issue in the dispute was whether or not marijuana could be a helpful and safe medicine in cases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis.

For many years, the U.S. government has fiercely fought off repeated legal attempts to change the legal status of marijuana. This included dogged resistance to allowing its use even in medicine and even for dying patients. Two major reasons were cited. One, it really is not such a good medicine. Two, somewhat more quietly, reclassifying it as a medicine again will send the message to our youth that this terrible drug is really not so terrible after all.

After several platoons of reform-minded lawyers, including the two editors, finally bludgeoned the government into actually holding hearings and listening to evidence on all sides, happenstance put Judge Young in charge of the proceedings. We can testify that he never gave a hint of partiality; indeed, there were times when we felt that he was too kind to his fellow employees, the lawyers from the DEA General Counsel's office, representing the government — and when he was much too harsh on us. During 1987 and 1988, throughout 13 days of hearings and 18 volumes of evidence, the powerful U.S. government presented every scintilla of information and every conceivable expert supporting the official view that marijuana is a bad medicine. The government also sought to show, even though it was not an issue, that the drug was a destructive presence in society and that to cease the all-out war on that plant was to shake hands with the devil.

It is fair to say that never in modern history has one drug been subjected to greater impartial analysis where the power of cross-examination had full play before an impartial judge.

In the end, Judge Young issued a decision that upheld virtually every point we reformers had been making, in and out of court, for years. He declared, to the utter dismay of the leaders of DEA, that there has never been a documented death in the 5,000-year history of marijuana use, that it is far safer than many foods we commonly consume, and that it can be a helpful and safe medicine for multitudes of suffering patients.

Yet, marijuana and medicine are not the main points here. Courage and integrity by government officials are. Time after time, both of us have been quietly told by government officials that the extremism of the drug war was a snare and a destructive folly — but that they could not speak out for fear of destruction themselves by the hysteria that ruled government drug policy. Such officials in the drug-war closet have included members of Congress, heads of federal agencies, DEA agents, medical researchers, and front-line city cops. (Not included in the list was Francis L. Young, with whom we have never had a private, substantive discussion).

We cannot provide these officials and their counterparts in private life with courage and integrity. They will have to summon that up from some inner places within their own consciences. We can, however, keep providing them and the general public with new evidence of the destructive folly of drug-war extremism. We can also provide fresh insights on how we can extricate ourselves from this situation which so much resembles the debacle of Vietnam. And we can provide emotional support for those officials now struggling with the decision to emerge from the closet.

This book continues the efforts of the Drug' Policy Foundation to shed some calm light on the emotional, chaotic drug situation in America and around the world. So much is happening so fast that we often cannot understand events when they happen and soon forget them when they are a few weeks old.

Through its newsletters, books, conferences, and television productions, the Foundation seeks to both chronicle and interpret for the general public the course of the drug war and of the reform movement that opposes its harshest manifestations. And make no mistake about it: we in the Foundation view all too many of the efforts of leading drug warriors, in government and in private organizations, to be extreme, impractical, and counterproductive.

Thus, we have developed a deep suspicion of drug prohibition and of the excessive reliance on the police, prisons, and now even the military to enforce the drug laws. Unlike federal employee Young, President George Bush has continued the dominant tradition of extremism and factual distortions that have for so long characterized U.S. drug policy — and which too many world leaders seem, perversely, to admire. We gasped in disbelief when President Bush, in apparent violation of a number of laws and in utter disregard of the deservedly raw sensibilities of millions of Latin Americans, sent 24,000 troops to arrest the president of a sovereign country. We do not have to grant an iota of sympathy to Manuel Noriega, very probably a major drug trafficker and all-around bad guy, to be saddened, even aghast, at the lowest official estimated toll of the Panama adventure: major parts of this small country ravaged, 202 Panamanian civilians and 314 soldiers killed, and 23 American soldiers killed. As Tom Wicker observed in a trenchant editorial in The New York Times: "539 people lost their lives as the primary human cost of putting handcuffs on one thug."

That seemingly mad chapter in drug-control history took place within the past year, during the Christmas season of 1989. It had been proceeded by the first Bush-Bennett National Drug Control Strategy, a harsh document mandated by the harsh drug law of 1988. Mr. Bush's September speech on nationwide television announcing the strategy fit within the mainstream of American drug-control efforts during this century (and showed again just how rare Judge Young's decision was). While many parts of the speech sounded reasonable, in the end, it promised war on drug users and sellers, a war without mercy. The kinder, gentler president justified his anger by holding up a bag of crack which, he said somberly, had been purchased in the park right across the street from the White House. The message was clear: the dealers are practically invading the presidential mansion! Sound the alarm! But, like so much in the drug war ideology, it was a false alarm.

A resourceful reporter, perhaps helped by shame-faced police, uncovered the truth. The young black dealer had to be repeatedly lured to Lafayette Park. He had never knowingly been there and did not even know where the White House was. It was an event staged for the speech. In other words, a lie. When confronted by press, the president of the free world shot back: "I don't understand. I mean, has somebody got some advocates here for this drug guy?"

The answer, of course, should be not advocates for the drug guy but for truth and compassion by the leading officials of a democratic society. The outrage that greeted that typically demagogic performance is fading into the mists of the past as more drug-control events overwhelm our senses. We do not want to let that happen. Nor do we want to forget a myriad of other important events, books, articles, and court decisions that took place within the last year or so and that made an important difference in the drug policy debate.   

We want everyone to remember that event and the fact that some people simply could not believe our president could get away with it. We want to remember, for example, the response of Lewis Lapham, the erudite editor of Harper's Magazine, who wrote in an essay featured on the December 1989 cover: "I see no reason why I can't look forward to hearing him declare a war against cripples, or one-eyed people, or red geraniums. It was a genuinely awful speech, rooted at the beginning in a lie, directed at an imaginary enemy, sustained by false argument, proposing a policy that has already failed, playing to the galleries of prejudice and fear."   

Nor do we want to forget that the main answer to this searing, factual attack was a curt wave of the hand from Drug Czar William Bennett that same month at Harvard University. In a much-heralded address, Mr. Bennett attacked the intellectual essays and op-ed pieces criticizing his drug war, specifically mentioning the Harper's article as being written "with an ignorant sneer."

Last but not least, we do not want anyone to forget that Drug Czar Bennett, with the full support of the Bush White House, announced on April 13, 1989, that the U.S. government would make the nation's capital city a test case of its ability to enforce the drug laws. Since that brave announcement, the drug and crime situation in Washington, D.C. has deteriorated. Open-air drug markets flourish on Washington streets. Drug-trade homicides reached approximately 260 during 1989. Those 260 drug-trade homicides in this small city of 622,000 souls surpasses the number of such homicides that occurred throughout any industrialized nation during 1989. During 1990, the second full year of the Bush Administration, this small holocaust continues in Washington. Indeed, it appears that the grisly record of 1989 may well be surpassed.

The trial of Mayor Marion Barry in 1990 documented how the chief executive of the city was able to buy and use drugs repeatedly over the past decade even though he was surrounded by a phalanx of police. The failure of the jury to render guilty verdicts on most charges showed how resistance to reliance on the criminal law to control drug use was growing, especially among minorities.

In September of 1990, President Bush and Drug Czar Bennett issued a report claiming significant progress in their war on drugs. No mention was made of the Washington test case. Within days of their report, it was discovered that a cocaine ring had been operating partly from a House of Representatives office garage. A few days later, Mr. Bennett admitted that no progress was being made on the test case in Washington, primarily because "There is just no consuming passion against drugs in D.C."

So that we all may remember these important events and the ideas surrounding them, we have produced this volume and intend to continue to produce similar volumes in the years ahead. We produced a somewhat similar book last year entitled Drug Policy 1989-1990: A Reformer's Catalogue. This book builds on that one but has its own distinct style: it is shorter and contains a balanced mix of wholly new materials as well as significant writings of the recent past including the views of some of the most important supporters of the drug war.

The inspiration for the title was an article by the late, wonderful Edward Brecher entitled "Needles and the Conscience of a Nation." In that article, contained herein, Mr. Brecher made the case for expanding our sense of national morality to include deviants, law breakers, even prostitutes and addicts. "Don't protect only the rich and the middle classes or only the law abiding: for the infection will sooner or later spread from the unprotected to the protected," he wrote. Ed was referring to the American public health strategy developed over a century ago. He said that it was a "scientific rule that is also a moral precept." He argued that it should now be applied to AIDS and anti-needle laws.

We believe that this rule ought to apply to the entire drug problem. If we treat deviants and law breakers as enemies of the state to be destroyed in a harsh war, then the rest of us are placed in serious danger, often from enemies as devious and deadly as the AIDS virus. That combined good scientific rule and moral precept, moreover, ought to apply to all aspects of modern societies, not simply the arena of drug control.

The young staff of a young, vibrant organization, the Drug Policy Foundation, again pitched in and produced yet another publication in record time. We particularly want to thank Carolyn B. Shulman, who effectively took the lead in organizing materials and staff for this project. In addition, we wish to thank Kennington Wall, Pamela Griffin, Michael Elsner, and Rachel Donaldson for their fine contributions in this regard.

Arnold S. Trebach
Kevin B. Zeese

Washington, District of Columbia
October 1990