Drug Bizarre

Robert Dowd is a veteran, a Southern Baptist, a Republican ... and a staunch supporter of legalizing drugs

Robert Dowd is talking about legalizing drugs again. He's sitting in an old easy chair -- vanilla with copper crisscrosses -- that clashes intensely with the sea of yellow and gold shag carpet flowing across his living room. Dowd is a mellow dude and a vegetarian who wants world peace. But something's wrong here. He doesn't fit in with the psychedelic crowd. He's a Southern Baptist, a World War II veteran, and a Republican. Dowd says he has never even tried marijuana, much less cocaine, heroin, speed, 'shrooms, peyote, acid, or Ecstasy.

Finally the retired lieutenant colonel offers a dose of reality: He has taken drugs. In fact, he is on them right now: beta-blockers, which his doctor prescribed to lower his blood pressure. Dowd is 77 years old. His wife Rosemary, whom he married 56 years ago, takes them too. "I did get drunk one time to see what it was like," he confesses. That was 1945 in a tent on an airfield in northern France. "I know what it's like to get a buzz on," he insists. "I was the life of the party for a while." But he always refused the celebratory shot of whiskey that awaited aviators upon their return from a mission. He also abstained from taking the Benzedrine in air force survival kits.

"More Americans have been killed due to the drug war than were killed in the Korean and Vietnam wars," Dowd calculates. He includes in his assessment the deadly violence between law enforcement officers and traffickers, as well as among rival drug gangs. "You don't have the liquor or tobacco dealers shooting each other," he notes. "They don't have to because they have legitimate markets and legitimate ways of resolving their differences." The federal government reports more than 14,000 people died in drug-related incidents nationwide in 1995, the last year for which statistics are available.

Dowd grew up in Miami, attended Edison High School, then left for the University of Florida. When World War II broke out, he joined the air force. His 30-year tour as an air force pilot took him to Europe, Korea, and Vietnam. He retired from military service in 1973, returned to Miami, and took a job in the mortgage division of the now-defunct Southeast Bank. He retired from Southeast in 1986.

Over the next few years, Dowd slowly organized his assault on the war on drugs. Headquartered at his pistachio green, canal-side home in South Miami, he assembled his primary ordnance, a book called The Enemy Is Us: How to Defeat Drug Abuse and End the "War on Drugs." After six years of rewrites and rejections, Dowd decided to self-publish. In 1995 he resurrected the Hefty Press, which his father-in-law, Caspar Hefty, founded in 1912 and dissolved during World War II. In 1997 the treatise was printed. Dowd issued 1100 hardcover and 3200 paperback copies; he has sold about 2500 and given away 1200.

In the book Dowd traces the history of federal drug-control efforts, from the Harrison Narcotics Control Act of 1914 to the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention Act of 1970 to the wars on drug traffickers declared by presidents from Nixon to Clinton. Despite those actions the supply of illegal drugs increased. "Eradicating the drug supply by destroying drug crops in source countries and the attempted interdiction of drugs along smuggling routes have never been successful, going all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt," the author contends.

Dowd concedes that his book doesn't break new ground. It synthesizes the ideas of drug legalization proponents of yore, from free-market addict Milton Friedman to Princeton professor Ethan Nadelmann. Since the Seventies conservatives and radicals have smoked peace pipes over the issue at various times. In the late Eighties, politicians such as Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke advocated drug legalization, while others such as Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry used them. News magazines, including Time and the Economist, gave the debate extensive coverage. In the Nineties the polemic has centered on legalization of marijuana, especially for medicinal purposes.

Treat drugs like tobacco, Dowd argues. Turn the illegal trade over to pharmaceutical companies, regulate it, and tax it. Ban sales to minors, then expand education and prevention strategies like the ones that have helped snuff out tobacco use. "The United States can save over $40 billion of tax money spent on the drug war by all levels of government, plus reap over $20 billion in drug taxes to fund education, prevention, research, and rehabilitation," Dowd estimates.

Dowd has also penned numerous letters outlining his position and has dispatched them to members of Congress, journalists, doctors, drug scholars, and Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. In a 1996 letter McCaffrey thanks Dowd for a copy of his book. "I agree with you that both the military metaphor and reality of a 'war on drugs' is unhelpful," McCaffrey continues. "However, complex problems generally involve multifaceted solutions. While demand reduction is primary, supply reduction is complementary." He closes by recommending Jill Jonnes's book Hep-Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams: A History of America's Romance with Illegal Drugs. "Her insight and research support our national strategy." Jonnes concludes that legalizing drugs would spawn 20,000 new addicts nationwide.

Better thousands of addicts than thousands of dealers gunned down by police and DEA agents, Dowd retorts. "I've looked through our experience with alcohol and drugs, and I conclude that we're going to be a lot better off in a legitimate market selling openly and not throwing everybody in jail for using it. [We should] try to get everybody to use their good judgment. Just like we do with alcohol."

In February of this year New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, a critic of Washington's drug eradication strategy, corresponded with Dowd: "Thank you so much for your book. ... You perform a real service with your ideas. I have not seen it put better than your simple challenge: 'Show us one addict saved from the drug habit because there were no illegal drugs to buy.'"

But then a March setback showed it is difficult to break through mainstream thought patterns regarding anti-drug policy. Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who sat on a congressional drug task force this year, seemingly missed the volume's point. He wrote Dowd: "Thank you for sending your book The Enemy Is Us. I found it very interesting and insightful. I, like you, am committed to fighting the war on drugs. I appreciate your commitment to winning this war and commend your efforts in doing so."

Dowd gained a tenuous foothold in May, though. He was speaking to a men's group at the Kendall Methodist Church when he spied in the audience Rear Adm. Norman Saunders, commander of the Seventh U.S. Coast Guard District. The colonel gave the admiral a copy of The Enemy Is Us. U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Mark Woodring relayed this comment to New Times: "The admiral says he has not read the book, but that obviously the colonel did a lot of research to form his argument and that a lot of research would have to be done to counter it. His argument is very logical and very convincing. But that does not mean the admiral agrees with it."

"That's typical," Dowd observes impatiently. "The people involved in this thing don't have anything to counter my argument. But they don't want to agree with it."

Dowd is pressing on. In September he opened a letter from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) congratulating him on his induction into the Edison High School hall of fame. She wrote: "As the distinguished author of a book on the war on drugs, a successful businessman, and a 30-year aviator who served our nation from World War II through the Vietnam conflict, you definitely deserve this recognition. ... Please accept my best wishes for future success in all your endeavors."

Dowd quickly sent Ros-Lehtinen a copy of his book, hoping her encouragement extended to his quest for drug legalization. In the past the congresswoman has supported the federal policy of combining interdiction with prevention. "I am proud to be of the World War II generation -- a generation forged in the Great Depression, hammered into form on the anvil of war, then tempered and honed by our love of God, family and country," the letter accompanying the manuscript stated. "It is a generation of ordinary people who were called to an extraordinary task. In meeting our challenge, we achieved beyond our expectations. Now I am fighting my last war. I have spent this decade studying, researching, writing, and speaking about the tragedy of America's drug policy and more particularly, the failed 'war on drugs.' ... Attempts to stop the drug supply at its source have failed upon every occasion. Nary a soul has been saved from the drug habit for a lack of illegal drugs to buy." Ros-Lehtinen has yet to respond to Dowd's letter.

Jim Hall, director of the Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug Free Community, supports Dowd's call for an expansion of education and prevention efforts. But he thinks Dowd may be confused. Hall argues that making all drugs legal would simply create a new illicit drug market to meet the demand of minors. "What would be a safe potency of cocaine for drug companies to sell? And if it's not a high enough potency, wouldn't you just be creating an illegitimate market for other things?" he wonders. "I don't think he's made the case that legalization will reduce the number of people who try drugs."

Dowd's answer: "All I'm asking them is to think about legalization. The individual should be the regulator of drugs. What's the difference really between a heroin addict and a skid row wino

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