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HEARTS of the CITY | Essay / Robert A Jones

The Lost War

November 20, 1996|Robert A Jones

Last week, PBS treated us to the spectacle of World War I, where the generals ordered soldiers to climb from their trenches and walk--slowly--into the sweeping fire of machine guns. The soldiers obeyed and were mowed down like blades of grass.

The generals, you see, were using strategies developed for earlier wars when machine guns did not exist. Incredibly, they refused to change tactics even after witnessing the butchery, and continued throwing wave after wave of bodies at the flying lead. By war's end the bones of the dead covered the fields of western France, and the generals went home to their wives and children.

We are now engaged in another sort of war but one where the generals pursue a strategy just as bankrupt. It is the war on drugs. Billions have been spent and many lives lost. Prisons without number have been built to hold its victims and participants. And still the war rages on, the drugs keep coming, and the victims keep falling.

This time, however, a change in the script has emanated from an unexpected source: the scared, weary public. When California and Arizona approved medicinal uses of certain drugs on election day this month, the generals of the drug war said the public had been bamboozled and predicted that these measures would have a wider, deeper impact than the sponsors admitted.

"The California proposition was a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing," James E. Copple, the president of Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, said last week, and called the organizer's appeal for compassion a "brilliant diversionary tactic."

In part, Copple is right. Proposition 215 in California and the even stronger Arizona measure will have effects far beyond the medicinal uses of drugs.

But Copple also is wrong. The public was not bamboozled. Proposition 215 obviously represented a pullback in the scorched-earth policy toward drugs, and the voters were not so stupid as to miss that meaning. Along with their support for medicinal uses, they intended to send a message to the generals of the drug war, perhaps the most important message since the war was first declared by President Richard Nixon in 1972.

The message is this: You are losing the war and costing us billions. Try something else.

Recall that another drug war measure was on this month's California ballot. A prison bonds proposition would have sucked up more millions to build more cells to hold the captives of the war. Prison bonds have routinely been approved in recent years. This one failed.

"Those two votes were twins," says Joseph McNamara, the former police chief of San Jose who has long preached that the drug war cannot be won. "The people approved a less harsh response to marijuana and they refused to build more prisons. That's why you see the other side in something of a panic."

Panic is right. President Clinton's latest drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, declared that he would use federal powers to hunt down the terminally ill in California who smoke a joint and called Proposition 215 "a hoax" on the voters. He was joined in his dyspepsia by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and Joseph Califano, now head of one of many foundations lapping up anti-drug dollars as fast as they can.

Notice a small irony here. All of the above have solid Democratic and even liberal connections. On the other hand, the most visible proponents for a changed policy are now Republicans and wealthy businessmen.

In Arizona, the drug initiative was supported by former Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. In California they are joined by Milton Friedman, the conservative economist, and George P. Shultz, the former secretary of state, both at the Hoover Institution. William Buckley, the conservative columnist, also qualifies as a member of the new anti-war crowd.

Most interesting of all is the small group of multi-zillionaires who financed the initiatives. George Soros, the New York currency trader, contributed half a million in California. George Zimmer, founder of Men's Wearhouse, plunked down $160,000. Peter Lewis, who runs an Ohio insurance company, sent an additional half-million.

In other words, we have left the era when dope smokers and High Times magazine led the charge against the drug war. These new advocates hate drugs and everything they represent. They wish the drug war could be won but recognize that it cannot.

John Sperling, the 75-year-old education entrepreneur who sponsored the Arizona measure, puts it this way: "Arizona will save $100 million on incarceration costs over the next three years from this proposition. It's a matter of costs and benefits. We said, look, the drug war is bankrupting us, things are just getting worse, and 66% of Arizona voters agreed with us."

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