It alters perceptions and skews the ability to tell right from wrong. Ultimately, it results in a dysfunctional society. But it's not a drug. It's the War on Drugs.

The government has steadily refused to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana to AIDS and terminal cancer patients for relief of debilitating nausea, even though the DEA's own administrative law judge ruled in 1988 that the drug should be reclassified as a legal medicine. The government can't allow marijuana to be given to AIDS patients, Assistant HHS Secretary James O. Mason said in 1991, because that would send a "bad signal" that "this stuff can't be so bad." (This is one policy that might change quickly under the Clinton administration. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders told a reporter before taking office that she supported allowing the medical use of marijuana. While the decision isn't hers to make A rescheduling drugs is up to the director of the Public Health Service and the DEA A at least she wouldn't object.)

New York City canceled its only clean-needle exchange program for intravenous drug addicts in 1990 because, the Health Commissioner said, it was "sending the wrong message." In New York, some 60 percent of needle-drug addicts are HIV-positive; in Liverpool, England, which has a needle-exchange program, the rate of infection approaches zero, according to surveys published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the International Journal of Drug Policy. Meanwhile, time ran out on the state legislative session before its members could vote on North Miami Democratic Rep. Elaine Gordon's AIDS policy bill, which contained a provision for a needle-exchange program.

"We're sending a message, all right," says Dr. John Morgan, professor of pharmacology at City University of New York Medical School. "The message we're sending to IV drug users is: 'We want you to die.'"

Even the use of legal medication is affected by the drug-war mentality. Several recent studies report that complicated paperwork surrounding opiate painkillers, outright restrictions on the use of opiates and what one doctor calls "opiophobia" are leading to underuse of legitimate pain medication in hospitals. This not only increases suffering, it also prolongs the recovery of surgical patients, says Dr. C. Stratton Hill of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, who helped write pain-medication guidelines for the federal Agency for Health Care Policy and Research. "We confuse the legitimate use of drugs with the illegitimate," he says. "The illegitimate image so dominates our thinking that we believe anybody who uses them is a criminal."

Even people sympathetic to the cause are beginning to criticize such worrisome byproducts of the drug war as mandatory life sentences without parole for nonviolent drug offenses, the government seizure of $1.6 billion worth of citizens' property a year, and the criminalization of a generation of black men. (One of every four black men age eighteen to thirty is under some form of correctional control, the National Association for Institutions and Alternatives reports; in places like Baltimore and Washington, DC, the figure is closer to 50 percent.)

"I don't feel that you and I could sit down and take two weeks and design a system worse than the one we've got," says James Gray, a self-described conservative Republican superior court judge in Santa Ana, California, since 1989 and former federal prosecutor. "The courts are doing a good job, as is the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and everybody else. But we're farther away from a resolution than when I started on the bench."

Gray, who is careful to refer to drugs as "garbage" and abhor their use even as he promotes legalization, joins other state and federal judges in lamenting the crippling burden drug cases place on the courts. Bush let the number of sitting federal judges decline during his administration, while tripling the number of federal prosecutors and spurring them to bring three times the drug cases to federal court in 1990 as in 1980. The result has been havoc in the federal courts so acute that Chief Justice William Rehnquist last February told the mid-year meeting of the American Bar Association (ABA) that the explosive rise in federal drug prosecutions is "making it next to impossible for many judges to give timely and adequate attention to their civil dockets."

In an interview with the American Bar Association Journal after the election, Clinton said he thinks "a large part of the substance-abuse problem can best be dealt with as a public health and education issue." One of his first acts as president was to cut the staff of the hawkish Office of National Drug Control Policy by 80 perent. And newly appointed Attorney General Janet Reno, while no legalizer, is an open advocate of doing something with drug users other than putting them in prison.

But Clinton's only specific proposals so far are a "National Police Corps" to put 100,000 more police on the streets, and an archipelago of "boot camps" to straighten out young drug users through "shock incarceration." And it's worth recalling that in the first televised presidential debate, Clinton said he wouldn't consider decriminalizing drug use, in part because "the criminal justice system saved the life" of his brother Roger, who was convicted in 1984 on federal conspiracy and cocaine trafficking charges and sentenced to two years in prison, of which he served sixteen months. It isn't clear whether Clinton thinks his brother's life would have been saved by ten paroleless years in a federal penitentiary, the minimum mandatory penalty he'd get today on the trafficking charge alone.

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