Capitol Crackpots: What Are They Smoking?

On Capitol Hill, June 17 was a happy day for the addiction industries. Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, announced the death of a landmark tobacco control bill. And Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the Clinton Administration’s “drug czar,” pronounced anathema on the courageous citizens who dare advocate reform of the nation’s narcotics laws. So the marketers of addictive substances, legal and otherwise, will continue doing business as usual.

Cigarettes and narcotics are rarely mentioned in the same shortened breath, a symptom of American schizophrenia regarding addiction. Narcotics cause death and disease, so we strive to eradicate them by any and all means, from military intervention abroad to vast prisons at home. Cigarettes cause death and disease, but we do almost nothing to eradicate them and much to promote their production. The same elected officials who blather on about executing drug dealers are quietly coddling tobacco profiteers.

This curious double standard is sufficiently entrenched that almost no one notices it even when the two issues are directly linked, as they were in the final hours of debate over the tobacco bill. In their scheme to kill that legislation, Republicans raised narcotics as a red herring. They were encouraged by one of their favorite pollsters, who found that “the power of the teenage smoking issue can be completely overwhelmed when recast as a message where the [Republican] candidate places a higher priority on cracking down on illegal drug use …” Thus the Republicans added anti-drug programs as amendments to the tobacco bill, then proceeded to send the entire bill back to committee.

The same day, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, General McCaffrey took the opportunity to attack critics of the nation’s 50-year “drug war” as “a carefully camouflaged, exorbitantly funded, well-heeled elitist group whose ultimate goal is to legalize drug use in the United States.” General McCaffrey, who retired from the Army, is also a firm believer in the traditional methods of interdiction and incarceration to combat drugs, although there is scant evidence that these methods have achieved anything besides raising the street price of heroin, cocaine and marijuana, thereby attracting more criminal investment in their importation and sale.

The long-term effect of this policy, as economist Milton Friedman will gladly explain, is that Federal tax revenues are indirectly fattening the profits of drug pushers. Mr. Friedman, the Nobel laureate and conservative icon, is among those “elitists” General McCaffrey denounced. Along with 499 other prominent Americans, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, Mr. Friedman signed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times calling for a new approach to drug abuse, which was timed to coincide with the United Nations special session on drugs.

That ad promoted “harm reduction,” the view that prohibition alone is useless and that less repressive measures such as medical treatment and needle exchange are preferable to punishment. Under this approach, marijuana might be legalized and taxed, with the proceeds used to fund expansion of the nation’s terribly inadequate treatment facilities.

Such notions shock General McCaffrey, who promotes alarming theories about the deleterious effects of marijuana, one of the safer substances known to humankind. He and others like him warn that pot is a “gateway drug” leading to heroin and cocaine-while failing to mention studies that show cigarettes also entice teenagers toward perdition. The McCarthyite baiting of anyone who suggests that these public health problems are all related serves only as a cover for the tobacco business.

As a longtime smoker who has tried to quit more than once, I know something about addiction. Where prohibition tends to glamorize the forbidden, regulation can create useful barriers. If tobacco were criminalized, smokers would obtain it nevertheless, but I suspect more than a few secretly agree that the tobacco industry must be curbed, that restrictions on smoking are helpful to those attempting to smoke less, and that the medical consequences of our habit need to be compensated through taxation. In a society where medical costs are largely socialized, even though medical care is not, government has a legitimate interest in discouraging behavior that causes so much illness.

Poor people, of course, suffer the most from tobacco promotion as well as narcotics trafficking. So it is amusing to hear the Republicans, so eager to snatch money from the poor at every opportunity, suddenly worrying about the burden on low-income smokers that higher taxes would cause. Let’s cut food stamps, welfare, the minimum wage and the earned-income tax credit, they cry, but don’t touch that disposable income spent on cigarettes by disposable people.

If they were truly concerned about the tobacco bill’s regressive economic impact, they might return those funds to the affected families by providing them with health care. They might insist that tobacco taxes be used to fund narcotics treatment on demand as an alternative to prison. They might admit, finally, that nicotine, opiates and alkaloids are all public health problems that will yield to no military solution.

But that would mean overcoming two of their most harmful habits: hard rhetoric about narcotics and soft money from tobacco.