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.