Drug Warriors Continue the Madness of the Past

Early this spring, scientists announced that 17th-century

clay pipes excavated in Stratford-upon-Avon showed traces of cannabis. The

story cut several ways. If the Bard took a pinch of hemp now and then, drug

warriors would be forced to admit that it didn’t diminish his productivity. What

more could Shakespeare have done: Iago:

The Prison Break ? On the other hand, potheads, looking into the blank eyes

of millions of their fellows from Vermont to the Pacific Northwest, must ask

themselves why none of them has written Antony

and Cleopatra .

As the season advanced, the drug stories quickly descended

from the yuk level. In mid-May, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal

government was right to prosecute the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, a

dispensary of medical marijuana to AIDS patients and other sick people who

smoke for relief. The club had cited California’s Proposition 215, a state law

that approves medical pot use. But the justices ruled unanimously (Justice

Stephen Breyer recused himself on the grounds that his brother, also a jurist,

had heard the case at a lower level) that the national drug laws passed by

Congress do not allow a loophole for such enterprises. Given the federal

system, it was almost impossible for the Supreme Court to rule any other way.

Most laws do not permit local holes. Utah can’t opt out of Social Security, and

Miami can’t declare war on Cuba.

That leaves the responsibility for amending our frozen and

ineffectual drug laws with Congress, and the national political class. Though

polls regularly show that hefty majorities support medical marijuana, and

referendums on the issue have shown that these opinions regularly translate

into votes-seven other states besides California have approved

medical-marijuana referendums-politicians, with only a few exceptions, set

their faces against popular sentiment, lest they be accused of sounding the

retreat in a holy crusade.

One of the exceptions, interestingly, was candidate George

W. Bush, who in October 1999 told The

Dallas Morning News that, with

respect to medical marijuana, “each state can choose that decision as they so

choose.” It was a vintage Bush utterance, linguistically imprecisional but

politically plain: let the states craft their own policies on medical

marijuana. It was a refreshing contrast with Mr. Bush’s predecessor, who began

his national political career by lying about his own pot use, and then

proceeded to ignore what he knew firsthand about drugs by continuing to wage

the drug war against sick people.

In other ways, however, Mr. Bush has reverted to the

timidity of his class. He tapped as drug czar John Walters, who was an aide to

William Bennett when he held the job under Mr. Bush’s father. Mr. Walters’ c.v.

thus partakes of Mr. Bennett’s administrative failings-big talk, no

results-without any of his real-life insights or accomplishments. Mr. Walters

wants arrest to precede drug treatment, and he supports military interdiction

of the drugs our vast black market sucks out of the soil of Latin America. This

latter policy recently caused the tragic death of an American missionary and

her daughter when their plane was accidentally shot down over the jungles of

Peru. If Mr. Walters ever plans on a sky-patrol photo op-ideally with Mr.

Bennett in tow-he had better make sure the local God squad is grounded first.

Washington is truly a lagging indicator on this question. In

New York State, home of the Rockefeller drug laws, Governor Pataki has shown a

willingness to moderate their rigidity. Maybe the fate of Jennifer Stahl, the

ex-dancer and pot dealer who was murdered, along with two friends, in her

apartment over the Carnegie Deli, will slow the momentum for change. It

shouldn’t. There were many murders of liquor salesmen from 1919 to 1933; fewer

since. James Burnham, the former philosophy professor and Trotskyite who was my

senior colleague at National Review ,

had a list of 10 cynical aphorisms that were known around the office as

“Burnham’s Laws.” No. 5 said, “Wherever there is prohibition, there’s a

bootlegger.” And wherever there are bootleggers, there are rub-outs.

President Bush should be sympathetic to reformist impulses.

He has had his own drug problem, which he has discussed humbly and manfully.

The drug in question was the most destructive drug in America today, John

Barleycorn. Mr. Bush was able to overcome his problem, freely and with dignity,

because the drug that had him in thrall was not criminalized. If, in his

younger days, he had been caught, not driving under the influence, but with a

joint in his glove compartment, Al Gore or John McCain or Jeb Bush would be

President today, while he would be doing community service out of the front

office of the Texas Rangers.

It used to be thought that, as the baby boomers came of age,

the drug laws would change. How could the people who laughed at Reefer Madness pursue the policies of Reefer Madness ? Perhaps the poll data

and the referendums on medical marijuana reflect the mainstreaming of

baby-boomer attitudes. But cognitive dissonance still allows a great gap

between conviction and behavior. People can think one thing, but vote for

politicians who uphold another, for a long time. Perhaps our inconsistency on

drug policy reflects a need to believe that we are doing everything for our

children-a need fostered by the fear that we are in fact letting them down in a

variety of ways, from bad schools, to crap on the air waves, to broken homes.

Whatever the sources of America’s split-mindedness, we will have the

opportunity to contemplate its effects for many years. The drug war, it seems,

isn’t going anywhere. Neither is drug use.