----- PITCH Kansas City's News and Arts Weekly Week Of Nov 27-Dec 3, Issue 187, pp. 10-12
Kansas City's News and Arts Weekly
Week Of Nov 27-Dec 3, Issue 187, pp. 10-12
The Drug War's Dirty Secrets: What Warriors Won't Tell You
by Richard Lawrence Miller
Drugs do strange things to citizens who know nothing about them. Cynics
suddenly believe whatever the government says. Voters who normally gag at
a politician's platitudes shout "Amen!" Press-ganged taxpayers become
philanthropists throwing money at the problem.
I've talked drugs with citizens in person and on the phone, from Seattle
to Orlando, New York to New Orleans. Across the nation I find fear, anger,
and ignorance heightened by stories that government bureaucrats choose to
publicize. Have you ever wondered if authorities withhold anything from
you? People who hide facts about Iran-Contra, savings and loan, BCCI, and
other matters involving big reputations and big money are the same people
who feed you stories about drugs. Have you ever wondered if you receive a
Whether the drug warriors be Bush or Martinez, Ashcroft or Riederer, the
country's masked men who get in your Corvette or the city's narcs who get
in your underwear, drug warriors are counting on you. They are counting on
you to stay ignorant about drugs. Such ignorance breeds the fear and anger
that drug warriors need to keep the drug war going.
Let me share some secrets with you. You won't learn these secrets from
TV newscasters, from your daily newspaper, or from drug warriors. They
don't think you need this information. Maybe they're wrong to protect you
from this knowledge. Maybe they're right. Why not decide for yourself?
[Secret #1]: DRUG USERS ARE ORDINARY PEOPLE
Stereotypes of gutter junkies or crack zombies are wrong. The typical
drug user is the typical American, holding a productive job, engaging in a
wholesome family life.
In 1990 drug czar William Bennett declared: "Non-addicted users still
comprise the vast bulk of our drug-involved population. There are many
millions of them...Users who maintain a job and a steady income should face
stiff fines...These are the users who should have their names published in
local papers. They should be subject to driver's license suspension,
employer notification, overnight or weekend detention, eviction from public
housing, or forfeiture of the cars they drive while purchasing drugs."
U.S. Attorney for Western Missouri Jean Paul Bradshaw II agrees that
casual users must be a law enforcement priority. Upon taking office he
pledged that he would be "hitting the users hard."
In exasperation that most users find illicit drugs a boon rather than a
bother, the federal government has made users a primary target of criminal
proceedings. Government bureaucrats want to punish "millions" of Americans
not to illustrate the hazard of using drugs, but the hazard of getting
caught. In such a context laws become arbitrary. Why not punish people
for other activities that do their neighbors no harm? Why should
government bureaucrats ruin people whose habits the bureaucrats dislike?
Why can't government leave ordinary citizens alone?
In all my study of drug control, the fact that most users are good
citizens provided me with the greatest shock. In retrospect, I should have
realized that the drug war propaganda about murderers and zombies was wrong.
*Nicotine* fits the scientific criteria by which the government defines
Schedule I Controlled Substances--right in there with heroin and LSD.
Plenty of murderers and zombies smoke tobacco, but tobacco doesn't cause
their deviance. Nor do the drugs listed in Schedule I. Laws don't affect
Every time I give a public presentation about drug control, the most
crucial point I hope audiences will understand is that drug users are
ordinary people. Yet that seems to be the hardest message to get across.
Audiences insist that heroin junkies gasping on a cot, or prostitutes
demanding payment in cocaine are the typical users. Such insistence pays
tribute to the effectiveness of drug war propaganda. As the federal
strategy illustrates, the feds know the propaganda is a lie, but its a
*big* one, and they've repeated it often enough that most people believe it.
The Bush Administration is not the first administration to succeed with the
Big Lie, nor the first to punish and persecute ordinary citizens with
impassioned support from those same citizens' neighbors. We hear calls to
round up users and send them to camps. Los Angeles police chief Daryl
Gates says to kill them all. Millions.
My father was a war crimes investigator in Europe after World War II. He
often chatted about how the Holocaust could have happened. Today I look
around me and understand. All it takes is a morally smug citizenry willing
to tolerate the first outrages. Bureaucratic thrust will take it from there.
[Secret #2]: INNOCENT PEOPLE CAN BE SEVERELY PUNISHED BY DRUG LAWS
In November 1990 Adair County prosecutor Tom Hensley charged a couple
with processing marijuana. The sole basis for the charge was fabricated by
an informant being paid on an hourly basis to ferret out illicit drug
activity. Upon discovering the fabrication, the county prosecutor dropped
The federal government, however, had filed an "adoptive civil forfeiture"
against the couple's house and surrounding 60 acres based on the false
accusation. By this technique the feds help Missouri law enforcement
authorities evade the state constitution, which sends proceeds from
forfeited property to public schools. Feds can ignore Missouri's
constitution, so they split proceeds with local narc squads, and none goes
The feds refused to drop forfeiture action against the couple. Assistant
U.S. Attorney for Eastern Missouri Daniel Meuleman explained, "I don't know
if they're innocent or not." Unlike criminal proceedings,
*in civil forfeiture an accused person has to prove innocence to the*
*satisfaction of the government agency seeking the property. *
This couple had the advantage of competent legal advice. Many persons lose property because they don't
follow the arcane rules in forfeiture disputes. Almost a year after the
arrest on bogus charges, the feds agreed to drop forfeiture after the
couple agreed they would not sue for compensation. All they lost were
their reputations, peace of mind, legal fees, and respect for the law.
Such cases are nothing unusual in Missouri. Twice this year the "St.
Louis Post-Dispatch" has run a lengthly series of articles about police and
prosecutors using civil forfeiture to squeeze persons against whom no drug
charges are filed. Typically authorities confiscate cars, houses, even
home furnishings, and allege they were used in illicit drug activities.
Often owners can get them back if they pay cash to officials and promise
not to sue. If charges are never filed, these deals never appear in court
records. Thus civil forfeiture operates as a shakedown racket.
Jackson County prosecutor Albert Riederer disagrees. He says forfeiture
benefits property losers because the loss encourages them to seek drug
abuse treatment. One example of this therapeutic counseling is a
forfeiture pending against a $10,000 TransAm owned by a college student.
In January 1991 police stopped the car on suspicion that it may have been
stolen "as similar cars frequently are."
After searching the car repeatedly for marijuana for almost three hours,
police announced that a quantity was in plain sight on the dashboard.
Riederer's office filed civil forfeiture against the TransAm and then
offered to drop the proceedings if the student forked over $1,000. The
student refused because he felt he had done nothing wrong. A judge agreed
and threw out the marijuana charge. Riederer nonetheless continued the
forfeiture process, and the car remained impounded in October. (When St.
Louis authorities released the car from impoundment, the innocent owner
wept after they told him he could not take the car until he paid almost
$1,000 in "storage fees"--a sum he didn't have.)
In Alaska--touted as a state where marijuana is "legal"--less than 0.1
ounce was discovered in the jacket of a man working on his uncle's fishing
boat. Although federal agents admitted the uncle knew nothing about the
marijuana, feds seized the boat and imposed a $10,000 civil fine
*even though no criminal charges were filed*. Eventually the uncle got the
fine reduced and got the boat returned, but not before losing the season's
In addition to financial losses suffered by innocent persons, the drug
war tears apart families of the innocent. For instance, disgruntled
teenagers have used drug laws to harass parents. In Missouri a 14-year-old
runaway told police that she left home because her parents used drugs.
Authorities kept the parents in custody while the house was ransacked. No
drugs or paraphernalia were found. After vigorous grilling, the mother
admitted that in the past, she had used marijuana. Juvenile authorities
then said they would take custody of the teenager and two younger children
unless both the husband and wife agreed to undergo unannounced urine tests
and drug abuse treatment until they were certified as "rehabilitated."
This is not the only time a Missouri adolescent has exploited drug laws
and transformed a domestic dispute into an expensive and humiliating public
Among persons studying effects of anti-drug laws, such stories are
familiar--all too familiar. News editors seldom cover such stories,
however, instead choosing to publicize whatever law enforcement authorities
want the public to hear. In any society, victims of government agents have
little access to news media, but that doesn't mean victims are few or that
their plight is trivial.
[Secret #3]: MARIJUANA PROSECUTIONS RUIN PEOPLE'S LIVES
Many people have a quaint--and dangerous--notion that marijuana
prosecutions are no big deal, maybe a small fine and a year's probation.
Even when a criminal penalty is modest, civil penalties can be
devastating. Civil penalties can forfeit the family home in addition to
the small fine and year's probation. A popular civil penalty is revocation
of a driver's license following discovery of marijuana in a person's home--
not for *driving* while intoxicated by marijuana, but for possessing a
little at home. I've read Massachusetts court records detailing how
license revocations cost people their jobs and even menaced family homes as
mortgage payments fell behind. Marijuana prosecutions can transform
ordinary middle class families into welfare cases.
Drug warriors seek more ways to attack families. Missouri state senator
Harry Wiggins introduced a bill creating a new child abuse felony: keeping
marijuana in a residence where a child lives or *visits*. If authorities
discover marijuana in a residence where a child has visited, the occupant
could be subject to *life imprisonment* for child abuse. A mother using
marijuana could lose custody of her child. Or prosecutors could agree to
drop the child abuse felony charge against her if she turned over her house
and the child's college education savings account to the drug squad. The
Wiggins bill failed to pass, but his office says it will be introduced again.
Under current Missouri law, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
could be punished by life imprisonment if he was within 1,000 feet of a
building owned by a university when he sampled his famous marijuana
cigarette and handed it back to someone. Under state legislation demanded
by President George Bush, if convicted of misdemeanor possession Thomas
would have lost his college scholarship, his license to practice law, his
license to drive a car. And he would have to pay for psychiatric treatment
if he wanted those licenses back. As a matter of "public safety," Bush
demands that anyone using marijuana be destroyed--*unless* that person
should be on the Supreme Court. The Missouri legislature has balked at
such penalties, but Governor John Ashcroft wants them implemented.
Even when a marijuana penalty is small, creative prosecutors can invoke
other laws that balloon punishments. A southwest Missouri farmer faced six
months imprisonment for marijuana cultivation and possession. Like many
rural folk, he kept registered guns on the farm. Authorities threatened to
prosecute him for using each gun in a drug felony (the guns protected the
farm, marijuana was found on the farm, therefore he used nine guns to
protect marijuana). Facing a possible 45 year mandatory minimum sentence
on gun charges, plus loss of the family farm through civil forfeiture, the
farmer pled guilty to using *one* gun to protect marijuana, and is going to
prison for five and a half years--six months for the marijuana, and five
years for having a gun on his farm. He'll be 63 years old upon release.
In 1989 drug czar William Bennett boasted that drug prosecutions had been
so successful in Massachusetts that the state prison system was filled to
173 percent capacity--so successful that state authorities had to furlough
murderous thugs like Willie Horton in order to make room for elderly
pot-smoking farmers serving mandatory sentences. Who would *you* rather
have locked up, someone who smokes marijuana for fun or someone who rapes
women for fun? Prisons don't have enough room for both. Yet Jackson
County Sheriff Jim Anderson says marijuana is his number one law
[Secret #4]: MOST CRIMES BLAMED ON DRUGS ARE NOT CAUSED BY THE CHEMICALS
BUT BY LAWS AGAINST DRUG COMMERCE.
Few users of any illict drug are arrested for violence. Analysis of all
414 murders committed in 17 New York police precincts from March to October
1988 found only a half dozen in which pharmacological properties of an
illicit drug were to blame. The pharmacology of heroin does not cause a
seller to stab a user if a deal goes bad. The pharmacology of cocaine does
not fuel dealer turf wars. The pharmacology of crack does not make 24-hour
traffic flow in and out of a house that ruins peace in a neighborhood.
Violence and blight blamed on drugs would disappear if the trade were
legalized. We saw such a result with alcohol trade in 1933.
[Secret #5]: DRUG USE HAS CONTINUED TO DECLINE SINCE THE 1970s.
Drug warriors want more guns and taxes, and therefore promote fear that--
according to the Jackson County drug squad sales tax election flyer--crack
"is being sold like fast food, on every street in our city." Surveys
repeatedly show that drug use began to go down when Jimmy Carter was
president, especially among youths, and the downward trend has continued.
Whether the drug be licit or illicit, tobacco or alcohol, heroin or
cocaine, use has lessened among men and women, whites and blacks, young and
old. News media may report that an astonishing percentage of students say
they have tried a particular drug, but fail to note that such "use" is
typically a one-time experiment out of curiousity. A recent survey of
non-metropolitan Missouri junior high school students found use of illicit
drugs to be approximately zero.
[Secret #6]: THE PERCENTAGE OF CRACK BABIES BORN AT ANY GIVEN HOSPITAL IS
While continually heckling me at a public presentation, a medical man
finally shouted in fury, "You're saying all the crack babies coming into my
emergency room since 1976 are my imagination!" I asked if he agreed that
crack first appeared around 1986, and the medical man nodded. "Then," i
went on, "the first ten years you observed crack babies it *was* your
imagination, because the substance didn't exist." The medical man looked
embarassed and shut up.
Drug warriors often claim 375,000 crack babies are born annually in the
United States, each one with developmental deficits costing $500,000 to $1
million in medical care. That claim can be tested in several ways.
First we can check if neonatal units are indeed expending $375 trillion
per year on crack babies. The latest published figures for national health
expenditures are from 1987, contained in the "Statistical Abstract of the
United States 1990". The grand total by consumers, government, and
philanthropies for all health purposes (including hospital care, nursing
homes, physician office calls, prescriptions, medical research, and
hospital building construction) was $500 billion. Costs for all hospital
care were $195 billion. Crack baby expenditures cited by drug warriors are
2,000 times greater than the total sum spent for *all* care of *all*
persons in *all* hospitals.
Second, we can extrapolate from drug use patterns. Drug warriors claim
that a single use of crack devastates a fetus, but this claim is
incorrect. The claim is also sad because it encourages abortion among
women desiring pregnancy. To cause developmental damage in a fetus, a
pregnant woman must abuse crack in the way that hospitalized alcoholics
abuse alcohol. Studies of cocaine users find that 2.5 percent to 10
percent abuse the drug--in all varieties. Given four million live births
annually in the United States, 375,000 crack babies born is about 9.4
percent. To get that many crack babies, every pregnant woman in the United
States must be on cocaine.
In reality, few women are using cocaine when they become pregnant, and
almost all of those who *are* users will stop upon learning they are
pregnant. The percentage of crack users among women of childbearing
age--let alone pregnant--is so small that the federal government is unable
to make an estimate (National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Household
Survey on Drug Abuse: Population Estimates 1990).
Yet another way to determine the number of crack babies is to phone
hospitals and ask them. St. Luke's reports 0 percent. Research, 0 percent.
Baptist, 0 percent. KU Med Center, 0 percent. That doesn't mean they
*never* see a crack baby, but the number is so small as to be virtually
unnoticeable. [Typist's Note: All names above are hospitals in Kansas City,
Missouri, for those of you who aren't Missourians.]
Around Kansas City people repeatedly tell me that 15 percent of infants
born at Truman Medical Center are crack babies. That story is wrong.
Truman does not monitor each mother and newborn for cocaine, so no figure
exists. A one-month survey in 1989 found that 15 percent of mothers giving
birth at Truman showed *exposure* to cocaine, *not* that their infants were
crippled by crack or any other form of cocaine. Even so, 15 percent
exposure is far higher than would be expected from a general population.
And in fact, unlike many hospitals, Truman solicits pregnant women from
drug abuse treatment programs. Thus Truman neonatal statistics do not
reflect experience in the general population. Also, among low-income
pregnant women--exactly the maternity clientele in which Truman
specializes--a false rumor circulates that cocaine reduces time spent in
labor. "Cocaine-exposed" infants may be from mothers using cocaine for
what they believe is medication rather than recreation.
In hospitals serving affluent women who can buy enough cocaine to wreck
fetal development, the percentage of crack babies should be higher than in
hospitals serving impoverished women. The opposite is reported. We should
ask whether *cocaine* is being blamed for medical problems caused by
*poverty*. Cocaine was available for a century before anyone first noticed
a problem among pregnant women in the 1980s. In 1989 analysts examining
files of the Society of Pediatric Research discovered that in 81 percent of
reports claiming fetal damage from cocaine, medical personnel failed to
determine if the pregnant woman actually *used* cocaine.
"The scientific world is in the midst of correcting itself," declares
Nancy Day, associate professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "There will never be this
horde of crack-crazed babies affecting the school system. We are not
finding the birth defects that earlier studies have reported."
[Secret #7]: SCIENTISTS HAVEN'T FOUND THAT DRUGS ACTUALLY HARM THE
Along with drug use by pregnant women, drug use by workers is one of the
two hottest issues promoted by drug warriors.
In 1989, President Bush said drugs in the workplace cost $60 billion to
$100 billion a year. But the White House extrapolated that figure from a
*single survey* done in 1982 which reported that daily marijuana users had
incomes that were 28 percent lower than non-daily users. The survey
*didn't* measure workplace losses, and moreover found no income difference
among non-users and casual users of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. The
president's claim is fabricated. Drug warriors thrill people with lies.
Alfred Hitchcock made a fortune from scaring people; politicians get votes.
Studies published by the federal government show that illicit drug users
at Utah Power & Light had *lower* health benefit costs than non-users; that
Georgia Power Company employees using illicit drugs had higher promotion
rates compared to the *entire* workforce; that marijuana users had absentee
rates 30 percent *lower* than other employees. Other researchers found
that, according to supervisor evaluations, hospital employees using drugs
performed as well as non-users.
Drug users are ordinary people.
Increased detection of drugs in the workplace does not mean increased
use. Thirty years ago drug were not detected unless job performance was
affected. Now, sophisticated body fluid tests discover drugs in
satisfactory employees whose use would never have been noticed in past years.
One other point. Recently I chatted with a drug warrior who gives talks
to civics groups. He said 36 percent of General Motors employees are
intoxicated while on the job. I don't know if that's correct, but the
statement implies that something is wrong with those workers. Instead, we
should ask what's wrong with the *job*. What is there about working at
General Motors that would make 36 percent of employees want to be drunk at
work? What's wrong with the tasks, the type of supervisors, the shift
schedules, or other things controlled by the employer? How can we alter
those conditions to make employees contented? As organized labor declines,
leaving employees less and less able to control job conditions, drugs may
be taking the place of labor unions.
[Secret #8]: THE DRUG WAR IS AN ARTIFICIAL ESCAPE FROM REALITY.
The war conveniently diverts attention from problems that people want to
ignore. Someone drunk on the assembly line? Get him treatment while
ordering another to speed up. A ghetto guy making big money selling
drugs? Build a new "Big House" while houses of his law-abiding neighbors
crumble. Pregnant ghetto gal on drugs? Toss her in the clink while we cut
contraception services, pre-natal care, child nutrition programs, and job
opportunities for her friends. Yuppie parents won't let you run all night?
Bust them on pot to teach them a lesson. Your teens running all night?
Bust them on pot to show them who's boss. On and on it goes. Many people
using drugs to escape problems have clean urine.
Drugs are a powerful symbol for things that upset us: Changing standards
of morality; changing concepts of parenting; changing job markets; a whole
world changing. People are afraid. In some cultures, people respond by
sacrificing goats. In some, people bloody their foreheads. In some,
people attack neighbors who use drugs. Each of those responses is
different in action, but all are futile in effect. We can howl at the moon
all night, but at sunrise reality still awaits us.
The war on drugs masks a war on reality. If physicians confronted by
trauma called for a war on bleeding, citizens would recognize the danger,
yet the drug war focuses resources on tourniquets and bandages, while
ignoring underlying wounds that bleed: Social injustice, unemployment,
family disintegration, low self-esteem. Such problems are addressable, and
to survive and prosper we *must* address them. But we won't unless we
first give up our morbid fascination with drugs.
[Secret #9]: WE CAN STOP THE MADNESS.
But sometimes I think otherwise. When a medical man tells me that anyone
with a marijuana cigarette should be imprisoned for life, when citizens
twist their faces in rage while yelling hatred at me, when an architect of
Missouri's drug war tells me his work harms the public but that voters are
so stupid they must be humored rather than educated, I feel bleak.
Still, I have faith in my neighbors. Studies show that the more people
know about drugs, the less they support the drug war. Drug education--as
opposed to drug propaganda--can help wind down the war. But getting facts
to the public is hard. Exaggerations and fabrications by the Partnership
for a Drug-Free America are well-demonstrated (Scientific American, May
1990), yet new media continue to donate column inches and air time to
Partnership lies. Publications and broadcast stations seeking to deceive
the public can hardly be expected to let facts peep out of news coverage of
drugs, and those info-tainment sources are relied on by most citizens.
Nonetheless, if exposed to deviations from the politically correct line
laid down by drug warriors, people can understand how the war hurts
individuals and our society. Even a bigot's heart can be touched and healed.
Unfortunately, advocates of compassion face a broader challenge. Studies
show that a person's zealotry for the drug war is based less on facts than
on a personality which craves obedience. And obedience to government
pronouncements in the drug war is but one manifestation of a personality
that wants to obey orders in many other areas of life as well. Helping
such citizens to understand the desirability of self-autonomy is daunting.
For the time being, those of us who are peace advocates must rely on
ourselves. Fortunately, our numbers are not trivial. I encounter peace
advocates all the time, and we can make ourselves felt politically. We
just have to change from advocates to activists. The transformation is
easy and costs just 38 cents.
Merely send a postcard to your state representative and senator. Most
drug laws are passed at the state level. If you think all drugs should be
legalized for everyone, say so. If you think that just marijuana should be
legalized for adults only, say so. Three to four sentences will be enough.
Plenty of elected officials have private doubts about the drug war but are
afraid to say them aloud. Give peace advocates a chance in the
legislature; let them know you support drug law reform. Help them become
Sure, politics is a rigged game. But to play, all you have to do is show
up. If you have doubts about the drug war, don't just tell your friends.
Tell the folks who make the laws. They are waiting to hear from you. @
Text in ALL CAPS was boldface in the original article.
Text in *asterisks* was italicised in the original article.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank