THE POLITICS OF POT: A GOVERNMENT IN DENIAL
There is more and more proof that marijuana is NOT A KILLER WEED, and yet
in Bill Clinton's America, the number of pot arrests has more than doubled
BY Eric Schlosser, R0LLING STONE, Mar.
IN THE CLOSING DAYS OF 1998, a number of events exposed the profound irrationality of America's war on marijuana. During the second week of November, The Lancet, Great Britain's leading medical journal, published a thorough analysis of marijuana's harmful effects. The Lancet warned that people who smoke pot every day for years may develop bronchitis; may face an increased risk of cancers of the lung, throat and Mouth; may become psychologically dependent on the drug; and may experience subtle impairments of their memory. The journal said that marijuana should not be used by pregnant women, troubled teenagers, alcoholics, schizophrenics, people with asthma - or anyone about to drive a motor vehicle. But the editors of The Lancet argued that the dangers of smoking pot have to be viewed in a larger perspectiveMarijuana is "less of a threat to health than alcohol or tobacco, products that in many countries are ... tolerated and advertised." On the basis of the available medical evidence, The Lancet concluded that "moderate indulgence in cannabis has little ill effect on health."
A week after the Lancet article appeared, the FBI released the latest data on marijuana arrests in the United States. In 1997 roughly 695,000 people were arrested for pot - by far the largest number in American history. In 1992, the year before Bill Clinton took office, 342,000 were arrested. Eighty-seven percent of the 1997 arrests were for possession of marijuana, a crime that usually involves less than an ounce of pot. The cost of those marijuana arrests - not including the cost of any imprisonment after a conviction - may approach $3 billion. Under the leadership of the first U.S. president who has admitted to smoking pot, more Americans have been imprisoned for marijuana crimes than at any other time in our history. Twice as many people have been arrested for marijuana during the Clinton presidency as were during the entire presidency of Richard Nixon.
Even though the rise in teenage marijuana use has sparked a great deal of publicity, the level of marijuana use among the general population has actually remained stable for years. Part of the recent increase in marijuana arrests may be explained by heightened police attention to quality of life" violations. In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's "zero tolerance" policy toward marijuana has led to an eightfold increase in pot arrests since 1992. The crackdown on marijuana use also reflects policies embraced by the Clinton administration and the Republican-dominated Congress. Legislation passed at the end of 1998 escalated the war on marijuana, expanding the scope of workplace drug testing, funding research on new forms of biological warfare on marijuana plants and cutting off student loans to convicted pot smokers. The war on marijuana is being driven not by what the drug actually does to your body but by what it symbolizes. This is a war on 1960s counterculture, old hippies, non conformists and a wide variety of people the right wing has long considered "un-American."
Twenty years ago the decriminalzation of marijuana was supported by moderate politicians in both parties.
They argued that possession of marijuana in small amounts, for personal use, should be treated more like a parking violation than like a criminal offense. The rationale for decriminalization seemed obviousThe harms caused by the nation's marijuana laws should not be worse than the harms caused by the drug itself. In 1972, a bipartisan commission appointed by President Nixon called for the decriminalization of marijuana - a recommendation that Nixon flatly rejected. Nevertheless, eleven states decriminalized marijuana in the 197Os, and thirty-five others began to consider such legislation. The American Medical Association, the American Bar Association and the National Council of Churches endorsed decriminalization, as did President Jimmy Carter. In October 1977, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize marijuana. But the committee reversed its decision a week later, after strenuous objections by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.
While mainstream American opinion favored decriminalization, the far right thought that marijuana posed a grave threat to the moral fiber of the nation. Sen. James 0. Eastland, D-Miss., argued that the "marijuana- hashish epidemic" was being spread by left wing "subversive groups" and that it threatened to turn America's youth into brain-damaged "semizombies." Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, shared these views and in 1972 vetoed legislation that would have reduced that state's penalties for possessing marijuana. During the i980 presidential campaign, Reagan took a hard line against marijuana, claiming that medical researchers viewed pot as "probably the most dangerous drug in America today." President Reagan's War on Drugs began in 1982 as a war on marijuana. His first drug czar, Carlton Turner, blamed marijuana for young people's involvement in "antibig-business, anti-authority demonstrations." Turner also thought that smoking pot could transform young men into homosexuals.
Condemning marijuana became an easy way for baby-boomer politicians to distance themselves from the ig6os youth counterculture. It became a means of demonstrating their true "Americanism." As marijuana use declined across the country, there seemed to be little political benefit in protecting marijuana users from criminal sanctions. The War on Drugs increasingly began to resemble the 50s anti-Communist crusade - another government-sponsored witch hunt aimed at political non conformists. By the time President Reagan left office, in 1988, every member of Congress and every candidate for higher office had to anticipate being asked, "Are you now or have you ever been a pot smoker?"
In 1981, Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., introduced a bill that would have legalized the medicinal use of marijuana. Fifteen years later, as speaker of the House, Gingrich sponsored a bill demanding a life sentence - or the death penalty - for anyone bringing more than two ounces of marijuana into the United States. Today the heirs to the Reagan revolution in Congress are setting the nation's marijuana policy. Republican Sgn. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, also a Republican, have consistently been two of pot's fiercest critics. McConnell has tried, without success, to inake the federal penalties for selling or possessing marijuana equivalent to those for selling or possessing cocaine and heroin. Barr has fought hard to thwart any government research into what he terms the "so-called medical use of marijuana." He claims that attempts to study the therapeutic value of pot are part of a vast conspiracy. "All civilized countries in the world," Barr says, "are under assault by drug proponents seeking to enslave citizens." McConnell and Barr both come from major tobacco-growing states. Although approximately 400,000 Americans die every year from smoking cigarettes, the two politicians have focused their energies on demonizing marijuana) . Uana - a drug that, in 5,000 years of recorded use, has never been credibly linked to a single death through overdose or acute toxicity.
The newly elected speaker of the House, Republican Rep. J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, has been widely portrayed in the media as a kind and well-meaning moderate. Little attention has been paid to Hastert's role last year as chairman of Newt Gingrich, s Task Force for a Drug- Free America. During the 1998 congressional campaign, Hastert led the effort to portray the Clinton administration as "soft on drugs." At a press conference with Gary Bauer, chairman of the right-wing Christian Family Research Council, Hastert called upon America to "kick this destructive habit" and later called marijuana a "poison." In response to reports that perhaps seventy percent of the players in the National Basketball Association regularly smoke pot, Hastert proclaimed a Drug-Free Athletes, Celebrities and Role Models week. That same week, his Republican colleagues introduced the clumsily named Professional and Olympic Athlete Responsibility Resolution. The measure proposed that athletes caught with marijuana be required to turn in the person who sold them the pot or face a one-year suspension from competition.
The speaker's Task Force for a Drug-Free America did not have much effect on the 1998 election results, largely because the Clinton administration has worked very hard to appear tough on drugs. Donna Shalala, the most liberal member of Clinton's Cabinet, has led the administration's anti-marijuana efforts, assuming the moralistic role once played by Nancy Reagan. As a college student in the 1960s, Shalala smoked marijuana. As chancellor of the University of Wisconsin in 1990, she told Time magazine that "we see . . . kids getting into trouble with drugs, but it's nowhere near the range and depth that the alcohol problem is." As secretary of Health and Human Services, Shalala has changed her tune, focusing more on teenage marijuana use - despite the fact that American eighth- graders drink alcohol more than twice as often as they smoke marijuana. "Marijuana is illegal, dangerous, unhealthy and wrong," she has asserted at various press conferences and congressional appearances. "It's a one-way ticket to dead-end hopes and dreams." Shalala has worked closely with Senator Hatch on the issue of marijuana use and has further politicized the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an organization that funds most of the world's original research on the health effects of illegal drugs. NIDA is supposed to remain politically impartial and maintain scientific objectivity. At a 1996 press conference staged at the Jelleff Boys and Girls Club in Washington, D.C., Shalala surrounded herself with small children and inadvertently revealed how the war on marijuana has affected the spirit of scientific inquiry. "We're supporting a major research agenda," she said, 11 to deflate all the myths that marijuana and other drugs don't cause lasting harm."
The new drug-war legislation, passed by Congress last October and signed into law by President Clinton, contains a number of the provisions advocated by the Task Force for a Drug-Free America. Total spending for the War on Drugs this year will reach $17 billion, an all-time record. Among other things, Congress authorized the spending Of $23 million for research on mycoherbicides - soil-based fungi designed in laboratories to destroy marijuana, poppy and coca plants, They are meant to kill these plants without harming people, animals or nearby vegetation. Many Republicans in the House and Senate believe this new form of biological warfare may prove to be -the silver bullet" in the nation's crusade against drugs,
'The whole scheme is reminiscent of the chemical warfare that was waged against marijuana twenty years ago. In the late 1970s, excess supplies of a military defoliant called paraquat, left over from the Vietnam War, were given to Mexico by the U.S. Government. Through a program subsidized by the United States, paraquat was widely sprayed from airplanes onto marijuana fields south of the border. But Mexican pot growers soon learned that harvesting their crop immediately after a spraying prevented its destruction. The program was discontinued in 1978 when the U.S. Public Health Service disclosed that smoking marijuana laced with paraquat could cause irreversible lung damage. An eradication program designed to wipe out marijuana growing instead shifted much of it to fields within the United States - as smokers avoided Mexican pot - thereby turning marijuana into one of America's largest cash crop~. The long-term consequences of spraying the new mycoherbicides are bound to be equally unpredictable.
The Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1998 provides federal funds to small businesses that want to impose drug testing on their employees. The rise of drug testing has been one of the most extraordinary aspects of the war on marijuana. A decade ago about three percent of the Fortune 200 corporations tested their workers and job applicants for drug use; today ninety-eight percent of these companies do. Almost half of the nation's workers are subject to drug testing. Marijuana is used more frequently in the United States than all other illegal drugs combined. As a result, marijuana is the drug detected in the vast majority of positive tests. The drug tests administered by most large corporations and the federal government cannot determine whether a person is stoned; the metabolytes of marijuana remain in a user's bloodstream for days or even weeks after pot has been smoked. Someone who has smoked a joint on a Saturday night can easily fail a drug test the following Monday morning. The huge drug-testing system now governing the American workplace cannot reveal whether you have ever been stoned on the job. It only reveals whether you are the sort of person who likes to smoke pot. The current drug-testing regime blacklists pot smokers and prevents them from gaining employment, regardless of how they might perform on the job. Meanwhile, a person who downs ten shots of tequila every night of the week does not face the same denial of employment. Indeed, a recent study Of 14,000 employees at seven major U.S. corporations found that eight percent of the hourly workers and almost twenty-five percent of the managers routinely consume alcohol on the job.
The Institute for a Drug- Free Workplace has helped Congress draft new laws to expand drug testing and has fought nationwide against state laws that restrict an employer's ability to test workers. Five of the twelve companies on the institute's board of directors are pharmaceutical firms that handle drug tests. An industry that did not exist until the late i980s now earns about $340 million in annual revenues.
The Drug-Free Student Loan Amendment took effect last October. It denies student loans to anyone caught with any amount of pot. Existing laws already deny almost 500 federal benefits to pot offenders, including small-business loans, professional licenses, farm subsidies and food stamps. President Clinton's one-strike-andyou're-out law gives authorities the power to evict a person convicted of a pot crime from public housing. In at least twenty states, federally mandated "smoke a joint, lose your license" statutes now suspend a person's driving license after a conviction for any marijuana crime, regardless of where that person was busted. Being caught smoking a joint on the couch in your living room with your car safely parked in the driveway can lead to a harsher punishment than being arrested for driving drunk.
Under the newly enacted student loan law, a person convicted for possession of marijuana can become eligible once again for a student loan only after one year, following the completion of drug rehab and two surprise drug tests. A second conviction for possession of marijuana leads to two years of ineligibility; a third conviction leads to a denial of student loans indefinitely. Convicted murderers, rapists and child molesters, however, remain fully eligible for these loans.
Those who suffer most from the war on pot tend to be poor or working- class people. They cannot avoid prison by hiring costly attorneys and can be devastated by the loss of state or federal benefits. In 1997, Gary Martin was arrested in Manchester, Connecticut, and charged with possession of marijuana. Almost twenty years earlier, he had been severely beaten during a robbery, resulting in permanent brain damage,
After the beating, he endured a series of strokes, which left his right side paralyzed. He developed circulatory problems and his left leg was amputated. Martin regularly smoked marijuana to relieve "phantom pains" in his amputated leg. After being arrested for possessing less than four ounces of pot, he was evicted from his apartment at a special housing complex for the elderly and disabled. None of the doctors or nurses treating Martin was told in advance of his eviction. They would have lobbied the authorities on his behalf. "Kicking this guy out of his apartment for pot," says Hartford Courant reporter Tom Condon, "was just pathetic."
The offspring of important government officials, however, tend to avoid severe punishments for their marijuana crimes. In 1982, the year that President Reagan launched the war on marijuana, his chief of staff's son was arrested for selling marijuana. John C. Baker, the son of future Secretary of State James Baker III, sold a small amount of pot - around a quarter of an ounce - to an undercover cop at the family's ranch in Texas. Under state law, John Baker faced a possible felony charge and a prison term of between two and twenty years. Instead, he was charged with a misdemeanor, pleaded guilty and was fined $2,000. In 19go, Republican Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana introduced legislation that would require the death penalty for drug dealers. "We must educate our children about the dangers of drugs," Burton said, "and impose tough new penalties on dealers." Four years later his son was arrested while transporting nearly eight pounds of marijuana from Texas to Indiana. Burton hired an attorney for his son. While awaiting trial in that case, Danny Burton III was arrested again, only five months later, for his growing thirty marijuana plants in is Indianapolis apartment. Police also found a shotgun in the apartment. Under federal law, Danny Burton faced a possible mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison just for the gun, plus up to three years in prison under state law for all the pot. Federal charges were never filed against Burton, who wound up receiving a milder sanctiona term of community service, probation and house arrest. When the son of Richard W. Riley (the former South Carolina governor who became Clinton's secretary of education) was indicted in 1992 on federal charges of conspiring to sell cocaine and marijuana, he faced ten years to life in prison and a fine Of $4 million. Instead, Richard Riley Jr. received six months of house arrest.
In September 1996, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., attacked President Clinton for being "cavalier" toward illegal drugs and for appointing too many "soft on crime" liberal judges. "We must get tough on drug dealers," he declared. "Those who peddle destruction on our children must pay dearly." Four months later, his son Todd Cunningham was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration after helping to transport 400 pounds of marijuana from California to Massachusetts. Although Todd Cunningham confessed to having been part of a smuggling ring that had shipped at much as ten tons of pot throughout the U.S. - a crime that can lead to a life sentence without parole - he was charged only with distributing 400 pounds of pot. The prosecutor in his case recommended a sentence of fourteen months at a boot camp and a halfway house. Representative Cunningham begged the judge for leniency. "My son has a good heart," he said, fighting back tears. "Hes never been in trouble before."
Todd Cunningham was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. He might have received an even shorter sentence had he not tested positive for cocaine three times while out on bail. "The sentence Todd got had nothing to do with who Duke is," says the congressman's Press secretary. "Duke has always been tough on drugs and remains tough on drugs."
IN 1973, OREGON BECAME THE FIRST state to decriminalize marijuana. Other states soon followed, including California, Ohio, Mississippi and North Carolina. A number of studies later found that states that decriminalized marijuana did not experience a higher rate of pot use than states with tough marijuana laws. In 1994, Republicans gained control of the Oregon legislature after forty years as the minority party and quickly set about toughening the state's marijuana laws. They hoped this would send a symbolic message to the state's youth. In June 1997, the Oregon legislature voted by more than two to one to recriminalize marijuana, with Republicans and Democrats supporting a bill that turned possession of marijuana into a crime punishable by a jail sentence. John Kitzhaber, the state's Democratic governor, reluctantly signed the legislation, unwilling to veto it and risk appearing soft on drugs.
Drug-reform activists immediately began to collect signatures for a statewide referendum on the issue, arguing that the voters should determine the state's policy on marijuana. That signature drive yielded Measure 57, a ballot initiative on the recriminalization of marijuana. The state GOP, the Portland Oregonian and a group called Oregonians Against Dangerous Drugs supported a yes vote on the measure.
State Rep. Floyd Prozanski, a Democrat from Eugene, was one of the few elected officials in Oregon willing to speak out against making marijuana possession a crime. A former assistant district attorney, he criticized the scare tactics being used by Measure 57 supporters and later warned, "If kids don't believe you about marijuana why should they believe you about other drugs, like crystal meth, which are really are dangerous?"
No major political figure in Oregon advocated voting no on Measure 57. Nonetheless, on Election Day, the state's voters repudiated their legislature and backed the decriminalization Of marijuana, by a margin of two to one.
IT HAS OFTEN BEEN SAID THAT THE first casualty of every war is the truth. The American war on marijuana provides a fine example. No major newspaper in the United States has thus far mentioned The Lancet's conclusions about the actual harms of smoking pot Last year another British journal, New Scientist, revealed that sections
World Health Organization report On marijuana had been suppressed at the last minute. The U.N. agency's report had concluded that marijuana is safer than alcohol and tobacco; American officials at the National Institute on Drug Abuse called for the removal of those passages, claiming they would encourage groups campaigning to legalize marijuana. A subsequent editorial in New Scientist criticized "the anti-dope propaganda that circulates in the U.S." and called for the decriminalization of marijuana. More than a decade ago, one NIDA researcher told Scientific American of the constant pressure to uncover pot's harmful effects"Never has so much money been spent trying to find something wrong with a drug and produced so few results."
American voters seem to be moving toward a marijuana policy guided by common sense, not vindictiveness. Italy, Spain and the Netherlands have decriminalized marijuana, and their civilizations have not yet collapsed. A rational policy is not difficult to describePot use should be discouraged without criminalizing users. Possessing small amounts of marijuana for personal use should no longer be a crime. Scarce prison cells should be reserved for violent and dangerous offenders. Much like alcoholism, drug abuse should be regarded as a public-health issue, not as a problem to be solved by the criminal justice system. After two decades of official lies, an end to the war on marijuana is unlikely to come from Congress or the Clinton administration. Any meaningful change will begin at the state and local levels, where initiatives give voters real power and where citizen activism can overcome the timidity of elected officials. According to Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, decriminalization efforts are about to begin in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Arkansas and Illinois. This war is over, if you want it.
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