The DEA kicked off a joint campaign against "club drugs," such as MDMA (ecstasy) and the "narco-terror connection" with a little-known but politically potent group of women legislators at a May 23 press conference in Washington, followed by similar press conferences in states across the country. The "Shoulder to Shoulder" campaign is touted as educating youth and parents about the dangers of club drugs, but could have more serious political ramifications. The campaign will peak in November with a national conference where the DEA will assist the National Foundation for Women Legislators (http://www.womenlegislators.org), a more than six decades old group currently representing more than 3,000 female members of state legislatures, in drafting "model legislation" on club drugs and possibly even narco-terrorism.
"We have joined forces at a unique time in our history -- when Americans are focused on strengthening our country," said DEA head Asa Hutchinson at the inaugural news conference. "After the September 11th attacks, Americans came to understand as never before the kind of destruction drug money funds. The consequences of drug abuse are far greater than the individual or even the family or community," he said.
"But our fight against drugs is more than a battle against traffickers. It's a battle against misinformation -- the kind that tells our youth that ecstasy and other club drugs are somehow safe. It's the perception that so long as they drink enough water or take small amounts of ecstasy, no harm will come," Hutchinson continued.
"That can be a deadly distortion. Just two days ago, an 18-year-old California girl died after taking ecstasy at her senior prom," Hutchinson said. "The girl had told her sister she planned to take the drug. Her sister told her to be careful. And that's the misperception with ecstasy -- that it's different, safer, better than other illegal drugs. Today, we stand together so that no teenager will ever stand alone when they face that kind of misinformation."
For a more nuanced look at the dangers of MDMA, one can turn to last week's report from the British parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee on drug policy, which recommended lessening penalties for the popular drug and instituting harm reduction measures. During its 10-month inquiry, the committee turned to Professor John Henry, Professor of Accident and Emergency Medicine, Imperial College School of Medicine at St. Mary's Hospital in London:
"Quite clearly it causes about 20 something deaths per year [out of an estimated 50-100 million doses consumed in Britain each year], and that is very small in terms of the large number of users. You could even use the word minimal for the short-term risks of ecstasy when you compare them with those of cocaine and heroin. Addictiveness is low. The other thing is that there is emerging evidence that it causes damage to memory processes. There are epidemiological comparisons of users versus non-users and even more recently we have seen studies which have followed up ecstasy users for a year and they have shown that aspects of memory function deteriorate during that year. Long-term use might lead to considerable impairment of memory," Professor Henry testified.
The select committee also cited a March 2000 Police Foundation inquiry, which relied on the Royal College of Psychiatrists' Faculty of Substance Abuse to evaluate ecstasy's harmfulness. The report observed that "population safety comparisons suggest that Ecstasy may be several thousand times less dangerous than heroin... there is little evidence of craving or withdrawal compared with the opiates and cocaine." The report continued: "Although deaths from ecstasy are highly publicised, it probably kills fewer than 10 people each year which, though deeply distressing for the surviving relatives and friends, is a small percentage of the many thousands of people who use it each week. Nor is it always clear whether the deaths are caused by ecstasy itself... or the circumstances surrounding its use... in many cases they are due to environmental aspects of the dance club scene, particularly overcrowding, overheating, poor availability of cool-out rooms and restrictions on or the high cost of drinks.")
But rhetoric like Hutchinson's flowed across the country. "Our youth are led to believe that 'club drugs' like ecstasy are harmless," Illinois State Sen. Kathy Parker (R-North Brook) told a Springfield press conference the same day. "The grim facts show otherwise."
In New Jersey, meanwhile, Assemblywoman Clare Farragher (R-Monmouth) told her local "Shoulder to Shoulder" press conference she wanted to raise awareness of the link between drugs and terrorism. "Long before September 11, New Jersey faced increasing illegal drug problems, but in the past eight months the nation has learned how drug habits often put money into the pockets of terrorist organizations," she said.
In Washington, Robin Read, president and CEO of NFWL, lauded the partnership with the DEA as "one of the most innovative programs the NFWL has embarked upon in its 64 year history. It's an important step towards correcting the growing misconceptions that Ecstasy and other Club Drugs are harmless," said Read.
Drug prevention is one thing, but the alliance between NFWL and the DEA could have a national impact with the model legislation plan. The model would be available to state legislatures across the country as a handy way to express their concern over club drugs. While the NFWL says that it "does not take ideological positions on any current issue," its alliance with the DEA -- a highly invested protagonist with rigidly ideological positions in the roiling debate over drug policy -- raises concerns that the group has embraced the DEA's drug war without examining the many alternative approaches embraced abroad, where law enforcement is leavened with a significant harm reduction component. A conversation with one of the NFWL's main movers in "Shoulder to Shoulder" did little to lesson those concerns, but did leave the impression that a tiny opening for differing viewpoints may exist.
DRCNet spoke with NFWL private sector co-chair Joy Westrum, who heads Second Chance, a California drug treatment program. According to Westrum, the effort will build a network, "a very, very powerful union" between the DEA and women legislators concerned with youth addiction rates. Together, they will craft a two-pronged attack, said Westrum. "The first prong is to attack the so-called club drugs and the second prong is to make the public aware of the connection between narco-terrorism and drug use," Westrum said. "When you do drugs, you are wittingly or not supporting terrorist activities around the world."
The campaign will include public service ads about the dangers of club drugs, said Westrum, but would also include a strong legislative component. "We'll be looking for effective model legislation and other drug-related legislation," she told DRCNet. "We'll try to shut down some of these rave establishments that house these horrible activities," she said.
The campaign will also look for effective drug treatment programs. "We need to take a good hard look at programs that aren't working -- like methadone maintenance programs," she said. "They are not a solution. Instead we need religious-based programs, prison-based programs that don't use alternative drugs."
When queried about alternatives to a law enforcement-heavy approach to club drugs, Westrum scoffed. "We are not interested in harm minimization," she said. "Harm reduction says we're not clever enough to handle the problem. Clean needles aren't the solution. Kids need to focus on education and the creative, productive things in life," Westrum explained. "That doesn't involve becoming addicted to any type of drug."
Besides, said Westrum, harm reduction is a front for legalizers. "George Soros is behind the legalization of heroin around the world," she told DRCNet. "People like that are trying to hide their agenda, starting out on other gradients, but that's not the direction the country wants to go," she said.
As for reports such as the Home Affairs Select Committee that argue ecstasy is relatively harmless, Westrum responded, "That is the fallacy we are fighting against. We have to educate on actual physiological harm that is being done. It's not true that it's not harmful."
But when asked about opening the November conference to outsiders or otherwise hearing from the drug reform movement, Westrum evinced a guarded willingness to listen. "If drug reformers want to talk, communication is the way," she said.
Some drug reformers are already talking about talking to the NFWL. If they want to do some real harm reduction, they need to get moving.
The NFWL, the nonprofit educational arm of the National Organization for Women Legislators, has a corporate partnership program. According to the NFWL web site, among the corporations with which NFWL has partnerships are ALZA Pharmaceuticals, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, Brown and Williamson Tobacco, Corrections Corporation of America, Enron, Guinness Stout, Merck Pharmaceuticals, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, Philip Morris, SmithKline, Westrum's Second Chance drug treatment chain and Wyeth Ayerst Laboratories.