Prohibitionists open a new front in the drug war — attacking reformers.
STRAW MAN — n. a weak or imaginary opposition (as an argument or adversary) set up only to be easily confuted.
— Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edn.
AS WE GO TO PRESS, we are confronted with two reminders of the refusal by many political leaders to debate drug policy seriously. A leading member of Congress, Representative Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.), recently introduced a bill to deny tax-exempt status to organizations whose activities in any way include "promoting the legalization of any controlled substance." He singled out the Drug Policy Foundation as a target in his supporting speech. Meanwhile, final preparations are being made for a mid-May conference in Atlanta dedicated to resisting "drug legalization" in the United States and Europe.
Both events are tragicomic, underscoring both how difficult it is to talk sense about drugs and how willfully blind some hard-line elements are. The congressman's bill displays his and others' exaggerated fear and contempt for those who question current drug policy, or dare to say "prohibition." The Atlanta conference suggests that a circlethe-wagons mentality is taking hold among protectors of the status quo.
This is all sad at a time when the hunger for new drug policies has grown, and the range of alternatives has become clearer. Some people just don't want to hear it. And more important, they don't want others to listen.
There are two precedents for the Atlanta event: last August's anti-legalization conference at the FBI Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia, and another conference in Europe. At Quantico, the Drug Enforcement Administration brought together drug experts and rhetoricians to devise strategies for countering legalizers in public debates. But no legalizers were welcome; it was considered best to characterize anti-drug war positions rather than hear them firsthand. After all, a real discussion might end in some areas of agreement, better mutual understanding, etc. We can't have that. After all, this is a cold war for prohibition's true believers.
Swedish drug hard-liners invited representatives of several cities to Stockholm in April 1994, hoping to counter a network of cities exploring harm reduction policies called the European Cities on Drug Policy. The new network would be called, resolutely enough, "European Cities Against Drugs."
Echoes of Quantico and Stockholm resonate in Atlanta, where the organizers hope to launch a new coalition called "American Cities Against Drugs." While no advocates of drug policy reform were invited, the program reads like a virtual who's who of the public-private drug abuse industrial complex.
The first day consists of a series of 15-minute speeches by officials of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the State Department, DEA, Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, Partnership for a Drug-Free America, Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, and more. Their topics:
• "Why the United States Will Not Legalize Drugs"
• "We've Made Too Much Progress to Legalize Drugs"
• "What Legalization in Europe Would Mean to the United States"
• "What Legalization Would Mean to America's Children"
• "The Case Against Legalization" — and so on. One can't help but think of the "Two Minutes Hate" in George Orwell's 1984, in which citizens gathered at appointed times to be shown emotional videos stoking hatred of the state's enemies.
It remains to be seen what this conference will bring. But the intent of the organizers is clear enough. A straw man will be lynched in Atlanta, if everything goes as planned.
What is this "legalization" everyone seems to be attacking? Is it any new drug policy? Is it harm reduction? Is it a very specific model with which hard-liners disagree?
The answers to any of these questions hardly matter, because what's really under attack is the very idea of changing drug policy.
The consequences of such change are routinely portrayed as the worst-case. All of society's efforts to control now-illegal drugs are abandoned. Kids are buying crack cocaine at the candy store. And drug Armageddon ensues.
This model is drug anarchy; an even worse situation than we face now. And interestingly, no one in the drug policy reform movement is promoting such an irresponsible alternative as this "legalization" straw man that's going to Atlanta. Maybe that's why reformers aren't welcome; they might cloud the picture by giving a glimpse of the rich variety of reform proposals, experiments and experiences.
IT IS PECULIAR how often drug warriors retreat into this posture — always drawing the debate into black-and-white, us-versus-them terms, maligning the motives of people who figure there must be a better way for our society to deal with drugs than it does now.
Who's maligning whose motives? One case is Representative Solomon, who became chairrnan of the powerful House Rules Committee with the GOP takeover of Congress. In an April 6 speech, Solomon called the Drug Policy Foundation "the worst of the worst" of pro-legalization organizations, and said DPF is "deceptive, sinister and seedy."
Solomon went on to suggest that legalizers must not really be interested in legalization per se, since the idea "would be lucky to get more than three votes in the House or even one in the other body [the Senate] .... However, it is useful [to promote legalization] if your real purpose is to influence young people to try and use illegal drugs."
Subtlety is not Solomon's strong point. Ever since he capitalized on a Democratic incumbent's admission of marijuana use to win his seat in 1978, he's been one of the more opportunistic anti-drug congressmen, offering several harsh bills dealing with drugs in each Congress (though few ever went anywhere). It's not clear what sort of advantage he sees in demonizing reformers, but his position is unmistakable. He doesn't want drug dissidents to be heard. He wants them to be monsters.
Solomon also scored the Cato Institute, the up-and-coming conservative think tank, which supports legalization out of conformity with libertarian principles. Cato had triggered his anger by announcing an April 12 forum on drug policy and international affairs. Solomon smelled a rat and sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to all members of Congress slamming "Cato's Drug Deception" — before the forum had taken place. The evidently clairvoyant chairman had deduced that the Cato forum would promote the Dutch drug policy, so he offered statistics saying the Netherlands is a disaster. The forum was actually about international drug trafficking, money laundering and law enforcement issues surrounding the problem. Harm reduction policies like the Dutch approach did come up — because one of the panelists saw Solomon's letter.
Solomon's attacks on DPF and Cato may be silly, but they aren't too surprising. In 1994, he offered a bill to ban the use of federal funds to study drug legalization, as if the Clinton administration were eagerly planning such a study. He has complained about the fact that drug reformers are using the Internet to meet one another, to discuss strategy and to bash the war on drugs. Now comes the crescendo of his April 6 speech: his call for ending tax exemptions to groups that use the "L" word, legalization.
Yes, Solomon's bill, H.R. 1453, is intolerant and anti-democratic, and his rhetoric smacks of McCarthyism, hatemongering and — let's be honest — cynicism. But really, so what? The larger meaning lies not in the threat Solomon hoped to deliver, but in his own convulsions of anger and desperation. Why now? It's his somewhat defensive reaction to a changing environment. The failure of prohibition to control drugs is becoming more obvious by the day to more and more people. Solomon & Co. hope they can change the subject.
WHEN IT IS TIME to hammer out a real national consensus on finding a new drug policy, all sides of the debate will have to be represented. Today, extremists are working hard to marginalize advocates of change, which could be a risky strategy.
Perhaps they fear that if reformers succeed, people who have dedicated their lives to reducing and treating drug abuse will no longer be needed or welcome.
Quite the contrary, we will probably need just about the same mix of public and private anti-drug efforts we have today under any conceivable reform policy. (Minus, of course, large chunks of the drug enforcement machinery.) On balance, the environment need not change dramatically; we might make do with a little more honesty and a lot less persecution. With the onset of real reform, no one will become suddenly unconcerned about drug abuse. Even the drug intolerance of the William Bennetts of the world will have a place, so long as people are free to disagree.
We heard an anecdote from the DEA's Quantico conference that bears repeating. A person invited to the event didn't know quite what he was getting into. As the hours and days wore on, he heard more and more intolerant rhetoric, one-sided, anti-intellectual discussions, and mudslinging conspiracy theories about legalization proponents. He was so turned off that he considered joining DPF, effectively ending his professional neutrality.
We can't say one way or the other whether he's a member now. But the story shows the risks extremists are running today: In trying to string up a straw man, some prohibitionists may end up hanging themselves. •