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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / ROBERT SCHEER

The Drug War Isn't About Combating Use

Crusaders fight medicinal marijuana to help justify the cause's bloated budget.

November 17, 1998|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor

If there is one stunning bit of stupidity that instantly garners bipartisan support, it's the failed war on drugs. Virtually all politicians march in lock-step to do battle with unmitigated fervor against each and every banned drug as if they were all created equal in destructive potency and anti-social impulse.

Nowhere is the simplistic arrogance that underwrites national drug policy more blatant than in the continual denigration of voters in the states that dare dissent from official policy. In 1996, it was the electorate of California and Arizona that begged to differ and, by voting in favor of the limited legalized use of medical marijuana, incurred the blistering wrath of the anti-drug crusaders.

To hear the uproar in official circles, you would have thought marijuana, even in small quantities and prescribed by doctors for AIDS and chemotherapy patients, was demon rum itself, and that the ghosts of the temperance society ladies had risen from their graves to smash open the doors of the cannabis clubs.

But the hysteria failed. Despite police harassment, the nonstop fulminations of President Clinton's drug czar Barry McCaffrey and a massive advertising campaign against medical marijuana, the electorate has remained sane.

In this last election, voters in Nevada, Oregon, Alaska and Washington joined California and Arizona in approving patient use of marijuana. In Arizona and Oregon, voters moved beyond medical marijuana use, opting for serious steps in the direction of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Exit polls show that voters in the nation's capital similarly voted for legal use of medical marijuana, but in one of the more egregious violations of the spirit of representative government, Congress approved a ban to even count the D.C. vote on this measure. The fight to prevent the vote count was led by ultra-right wing Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), who perfectly embodies the contradictions inherent in his ideological obsessions. Barr has been the most vociferous opponent of gun control legislation and even gutted an anti-terrorist bill to tag explosives material on the grounds that it would be an unwarranted extension of government power. But locking folks up for smoking weed is his favorite cause.

He's not alone. Marijuana remains the scourge of the $11-billion-a-year anti-drug bureaucracy not because of any documentable antisocial impact but simply because that's where it gets the big numbers of drug users to justify the bloated budgets.

According to the latest FBI statistics, 545,396 Americans were arrested in 1996 for possessing marijuana, a substance that, if legal, would prove no more dangerous to society than the vodka martini one occasionally sips. That doesn't mean it's good to abuse any mood-altering drug, but rather that a national policy which turns the relatively benign use of marijuana into a highly profitable and socially disruptive criminal activity is absurd.

But don't try to tell the politicians that, or they'll tear your head off. Just look at the smear job McCaffrey has done on financier/philanthropist George Soros and other businessmen for daring to help finance recent state ballot initiatives that present voters with a drug policy choice.

McCaffrey thundered recently that the folks putting up money for these campaigns are "a carefully camouflaged, exorbitantly funded, well-heeled elitist group whose ultimate goal is to legalize drug use in the United States." Interesting that McCaffrey was silent on the far larger amounts of tobacco industry money that poured into California to challenge a ballot initiative to increase the tax on tobacco products and divert it to education. It is invidious to pretend that the drugs now classified as legal are less harmful than those whose use is branded as a crime.

Drug abuse, both of legal and illegal drugs, is a medical problem requiring treatment by health professionals, not cops. What makes the war on drugs so nutty is that it's more about maintaining the coercive power of anti-drug bureaucrats than treating those who suffer from serious drug abuse.

The voters have been vilified as naive, but that appellation belongs to a war-on-drugs crusade that has filled our jails while leaving illegal drugs more plentiful and cheaper. It drives the anti-drug bureaucracy mad that voters in six states have now voted to ever so slightly challenge its total grip on the awesome power of government, but it bodes well for our representative system of government.

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