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Drug War Dementia


H. L. Mencken observed in 1918: “A politician normally prospers under democracy in proportion . . . as he excels in the invention of imaginary perils and imaginary defenses against them.” In recent years, politicians have found few better ways to frighten voters than with the specter of drugs. The government’s war on drug users is annually jailing hundreds of thousands of Americans, ruining the neighborhoods of millions of other Americans, and setting precedents for expanded government power in other areas.

Most of the drugs outlawed are indeed harmful, but political grandstanding and endless crackdowns on users have failed to end widespread illicit drug use. Federal drug policy has been vastly more effective in punishing people — more than one million Americans are arrested for drug crimes each year — than in reforming their habits.

Government officials have responded to the failure of their attempts to suppress drug use with demands for ever increasing violence against drug users and suspected drug users. In 1989, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates recommended that drug users “be taken out and shot.” (Gates’s recommendation could have meant executing up to two million people in Los Angeles County alone.) In March 1989, federal drug czar William Bennett suggested abolishing habeas corpus to aid the fight against drugs and later said he would not be opposed to public beheadings of drug dealers.

The U-2 planes that once spied on the Soviet Union have targeted Americans’ homes and fields, searching for any evidence of illicit drug production. In September 1991, federal officials in Florida conducted a test of radar-guided rockets to be potentially used against the planes of suspected drug traffickers. The headquarters of NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command), in a mountain outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado, is now devoting much of its expertise to searching for signs of incoming planes that might be carrying narcotics.

The National Guard is now actively campaigning against private citizens in drug-eradication sweeps. In 1992, National Guard members assisted in making almost 20,000 arrests, searching over 120,000 cars, entering (without a warrant) more than 1,200 privately owned buildings and trespassing onto private property more than 6,500 times. Colonel Richard R. Browning, III, chief of the Drug Demand Reduction Section of the National Guard Bureau, declared in 1992:

“The rapid growth of this drug scourge has shown that military force must be used to change the attitudes and activities of Americans who are dealing and using drugs. The National Guard is American’s feasible-attitude-change agent.”

Assistant Secretary of Defense Stephen Duncan declared at a 1991 conference of the Association of the U.S. Army: “We can look forward to the day when our Congress . . . allows the Army to lend its full strength toward making America drug-free.”

The war on drugs is providing a license to terrorize American citizens. In 1986, a hundred state and federal narcotics agents swept into Jerome, Arizona, a small old mining town with 460 residents. The New York Times noted:

“To law-enforcement officials, Jerome had become a “hippie” redoubt in the wilderness highlands, where dropouts and outcasts from the counterculture of the 1960s had taken over the local government, established their own rules and officially tolerated the production of marijuana in the nearby hills.”

One resident complained: “To bring 100 policemen into a small town at 5 o’clock in the morning, dragging women and children out of bed, scaring them half to death, to get 9 or 10 pounds of marijuana, is asinine.” In 1991, 200 Drug Enforcement Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and National Guard officials descended on the town of Punta de Agua, New Mexico, in armored personnel carriers and surveillance helicopters but failed to find any drugs.

In a 1989 California marijuana-suppression operation, military-convoy trucks crashed through environmentally sensitive areas that had previously been banned to any heavy trucks. Garberville, California, residents were threatened with $1,000 fines and a year in prison for hiking on their own property in violation of a government order cordoning off large areas of land being searched for drugs by the military. Army infantrymen with no warrant trampled private property in sweep searches to try to find the illegal plants. Federal judge Fern Smith blocked the federal-enforcement effort declaring, “These operations deliberately employed methods that reach or exceed the boundaries of constitutionally valid law enforcement conduct.”

Each year since 1990, Kentucky residents have witnessed numerous sweeps by the National Guard through the poorest areas of the state: military helicopters buzz low over people’s homes and terrify children and farm animals. High Times , a magazine devoted to cannabis production, noted:

“Indignation reached a peak in October [1990] when growers, fed up with helicopter raids and the Guard’s occupation army, blew up a Kentucky State Police radio tower near Mozelle in Leslie County. The explosion disrupted communications in the area for about a week.”

In McCurtain County, Oklahoma, in 1992, “helicopters suddenly appeared over the hills and hundreds of men in fatigues began sliding down ropes into the fields below” as part of a DEA slash-and-burn campaign. Oklahoma narcotics agents reported that they were told to exaggerate the amount of marijuana they eradicate in order to boost federal funding for the state drug war.

Politicians are outlawing more and more types of nonviolent behavior to strike at drug use. Alexandria, Virginia, enacted a law imposing up to a two-year prison sentence for people who loiter on streets for fifteen minutes and “have at least two face-to-face contacts with others that last less than two minutes and involve motions ‘consistent with an exchange of money or other small objects.'” The ACLU argued that the law could justify arresting a lawyer for handing out business cards.

In 1991, Maryland cracked down on oregano profiteering, mandating a $500 fine and/or a one-year jail sentence for the sale of oregano or parsley if it were packaged to look like illegal drugs. Representatave Kweisi Mfume of Maryland proposed the Beeper Abuse Prevention Act in 1991 to ban teenagers from owning electronic beepers and to require a seven-day waiting period and a criminal check for beeper purchasers with violators subject to up to three years in prison.

In 1992, Tifton, Georgia, outlawed the sales of books, magazines, and pamphlets advocating use of illegal narcotics. City officials invoked the law in 1993 to prevent stores from selling hats bearing marijuana leaves and slogans.

Antidrug hysteria is increasingly victimizing those who use legal drugs. In Fairfax County, Virginia, a thirteen-year-old girl was suspended from eighth grade for a week and forced to attend a drug-abuse prevention program because a teacher saw she had allergy medication in her purse. The Washington Post reported:

“Under Fairfax schools policy, any prescription drugs, or other medication a student must take, must be stored in the school clinic . . . . The [school] policy . . . defines substance abuse as having or distributing an ‘imitation controlled substance’ with appearance, color or size that would lead ‘a reasonable person to believe that the substance is a controlled substance.'”

Fairfax schools spokeswoman Dolores Bohen said even students taking allergy drugs or flu medication “are not supposed to carry it around. . . . The parent is supposed to make the school aware. The nurse should know and the administrators should know.” In Washington, D.C., a ten-year-old-girl was prohibited from taking aspirin for her frequent migraine headaches; instead, the school system repeatedly called her mother away from work to come and take the girl home. School officials insisted that only nurses could administer medication to students; unfortunately, most of the schools did not have nurses.

In Hamilton, Ohio, a school suspended two students after a girl gave her classmate two Tylenol tablets for a headache. Shortly after the drug conspirators were apprehended, the school system discovered that the first-aid kit that one of its elementary schools was selling as a fundraiser included two Tylenol tablets. Superintendent Jeffrey Sittson declared: “Luckily, the kids had only been taking orders one day and none had been delivered, so we canceled the project immediately.” It is almost as if school officials are so frightened of being accused of being soft on drugs that they are attempting to turn back the clock a hundred years and deny the wonders of modern pharmacology.

Federal drug crackdowns have many unrecognized casualties, including millions of Americans undergoing surgery who are denied adequate pain relief. Scientific American stated in 1990:

Society’s failure to distinguish between the emotionally impaired addict and the psychologically healthy pain sufferer has affected every segment of the population. Perhaps the most distressing example is unnecessary pain in children.

Up to 70 percent of terminal cancer patients do not get enough pain-relief medication. According to Dr. Richard Blonsky, president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, “For a person experiencing pain, narcotics are the best pain killers we know. A lot of doctors fear that if they write too many prescriptions, Big Brother will get after them.” Dr. Russell Portnoy, director of analgesic studies at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York, declared in 1987: “The undertreatment of pain in hospitals is absolutely medieval.”

Morphine is often the only medicine that can adequately control cancer pain, but doctors have sharply reduced their prescriptions of morphine for people in severe pain in response to a crackdown by federal and state drug-enforcement agencies. Federal and state drug officials have effectively pressured physicians to underprescribe pain killers because of a paranoia about the creation of drug addicts, but a 1980 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that of 11,882 hospital patients treated with painkillers, only 4 became addicted. A 1982 survey of 10,000 burn patients who received narcotics as part of their treatment found that none became addicted, and of 2,000 headache patients who were treated with narcotics, fewer than 1 percent became addicted. Frank Adams, an Arlington, Texas, pain specialist, has had his office searched eighteen times by DEA agents and local police, checking his patient files. Adams observed:

“Drug agents have been turned loose and are totally out of control and they do not know how to discriminate between the legitimate and illegitimate use of these drugs. This is police-state medicine.”

Federal efforts to prevent narcotics imports are a dismal failure. Attorney General Janet Reno conceded in 1993 that federal experts estimate that “to have any impact on drugs in America you would have to interdict 75 percent of the stuff and that would be economically prohibitive.” Yet DEA estimates that only about 10 percent of illicit drugs entering the U.S. are seized by law-enforcement officials, while an August 1993 confidential National Security Council review of military efforts to detect and prevent drug smuggling found virtually no impact on the price or supply of cocaine imports.

Attorney General William Barr proclaimed in 1992 that the federal war on drugs had been a success — “a decade of achievement” — in part because 6,176 drug leaders, managers, and other key drug violators were serving more than ten years each in prison. American University professor Arnold Trebach has referred to “the American drug gulag” to describe prisons full of drug offenders.” The U.S. now has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The average length of prison sentence for drug offenses almost tripled between 1986 and 1991 (from 27 months to 78 months). In New York City, prisoners have been kept on barges. The federal Bureau of Prisons is acquiring college campuses and religious seminaries and converting them into minimum-security facilities. The number of people in federal and state prisons on drug charges has increased tenfold since 1980; since 1987, drug defendants have accounted for three quarters of all new federal prisoners.

Despite politicians’ efforts to portray drug users and dealers as dangerous social agents, almost 80 percent of the people sentenced to state prisons on drug charges had no history of criminal violence.

The ultimate question is: Who should pay the cost of drug abuse — society or the drug abuser? If drugs were legal, we would still see deaths from overdoses, but there would be far fewer deaths from gun battles among drug dealers, far fewer neighborhoods destroyed by drug dealers, and far fewer deaths from contaminated drugs. The question is not whether drugs are bad for the individual but whether government has a right to punish people for how they treat their own bodies. It is naive to view most drug users as innocent victims of pushers. But it is ludicrous to view casual drug users as dangerous social enemies that deserve a dose of ayatollah — justice. Most drug addicts’ worst crime is garden-variety stupidity or weakness of will.

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    James Bovard is a policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a USA Today columnist and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of Freedom Frauds: Hard Lessons in American Liberty (2017, published by FFF); Public Policy Hooligan (2012); Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book’s Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.