Just Say No (to the war on drugs)

by Salim Muwakkil

In These Times magazine, July 2000


If the House passes the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act, our constitutional rights, already wounded, will become yet another casualty in the long line of victims felled by the war on drugs. This insane crusade has fueled a bullet-soaked underground economy that has helped devastate large swaths of urban America, filled U.S. prisons with more inmates than anywhere on earth and deeply corrupted law enforcement.

This collateral damage cannot be justified. The war has not moved us any closer toward a drug-free society. Just the opposite: Drugs are more available now (to younger children) than before the war's inception during the Nixon administration; drug deaths are up; prices for hard drugs are at historic lows; addicts seeking help still have few places to turn. These are the findings of "The War on Drugs: Addicted to Failure," a recent report by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). This report, which compiles recommendations of a Citizens Commission on U.S. Drug Policy put together by the IPS, is just one of many that reveal the drug war's tragic failure.

But none of this has deterred the dedicated drug warriors from their mindless offensive. Government officials and pandering politicians seem oblivious to the growing body of evidence that the paramilitary law enforcement model is just plain ineffective in addressing the problems of substance abuse. In fact, researchers are approaching a consensus that the combative approach only exacerbates the problem.

The Methamphetamine AntiProliferation Act explicitly sacrifices civil liberties for the cause of anti-drug warfare. The bill would make it a federal crime to teach or demonstrate how to make a controlled substance, or to distribute any information pertaining to the manufacture or use of a controlled substance. Although the bill is designed to prevent the transmission of online recipes for making meth, its provisions are so vague that they could outlaw virtually all speech about illegal drugs.

Although seven states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington) and the District of Columbia have passed referenda allowing the use of medical marijuana, any discussion of marijuana cultivation or use for medical purposes also would be banned by the bill. Under the legislation, advertising drug paraphernalia, directly or indirectly, would become a federal crime. For example, e-mailing a friend the phone number or Web address of a head shop could be punishable by three years in federal prison.

Just as ominously, the bill would allow federal agents to search people's homes without informing the owners. Now federal agents can search a home with a warrant, but they must inform the owner of their intent and reveal what they confiscated. But for the sake of the drug war, this Fourth Amendment protection would be wiped out. The government would never have to reveal what intangible items were taken (like items photographed or files copied from a computer hard drive). How can an improper search be challenged if the target is never informed?

Meanwhile in the Senate, which already has passed its version of the bill, obtuse drug warriors are readying another assault on the Constitution. Florida Sen. Bob Graham has introduced legislation proposing similar measures for the drug ecstasy (MDMA), titled the Ecstasy AntiProliferation Act. Not only does this legislation inappropriately equate ecstasy with deadly meth, it reinforces the combat mentality that makes the war on drugs so disastrous.

This hopeless strategy has filled our jails, corroded our culture and endangered our future. There are several steps we could take to craft more effective drug policies. Following European models, we could make drug treatment programs available to anyone who wants them, institute drug-maintenance programs, repeal mandatory-minimum penalties in drug cases and decriminalize marijuana, among other things. First, though, we must immediately end this destructive war.

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