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Remembrance: Walter Cronkite on the Drug War

Epilogue by Walter Cronkite at the close of ""The Drug Dilemma: War or Peace," The Cronkite Report, June 20, 1995:

Every American was shocked when Robert McNamara, one of the master architects of the Vietnam war, acknowledged that not only did he believe the war was, "wrong, terribly wrong," but that he thought so at the very time he was helping to wage it. That's a mistake we must not make in this 10th year of America's all-out War on Drugs.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/waltercronkite.jpg
Walter Cronkite
It's surely time for this nation to stop flying blind, stop accepting the assurances of politicians and other officials, that if we only keep doing what we are doing, add a little more cash, break down a few more doors, lock up a few more Jan Warrens and Nicole Richardsons, then we will see the light at the end of the tunnel. Victory will be ours.

Tonight we have seen a war that in its broad outline is not working. And we've seen some less war-like ideas that appear to hold promise. We've raised more questions than we've answered, because that's where the Drug War stands today. We're a confused people, desperately in need of answers and leadership. Legalization seems to many like too dangerous an experiment; to others, the War on Drugs, as it is now conducted, seems inhumane and too costly. Is there a middle ground?

Well, it seems to this reporter that the time has come for President Clinton to do what President Hoover did when prohibition was tearing the nation apart: appoint a bi-partisan commission of distinguished citizens, perhaps including some of the people we heard tonight, a blue-ribbon panel to re-appraise our drug policy right down to its very core, a commission with full investigative authority and the prestige and power to override bureaucratic concerns and political considerations.

Such a commission could help us focus our thinking, escape the cliches of the Drug War in favor of scientific fact, and more rationally analyze the real scope of the problem, answer the questions that bedevil us, and present a comprehensive drug policy for the future.

We cannot go into tomorrow with the same formulas that are failing today. We must not blindly add to the body count and the terrible cost of the War on Drugs, only to learn from another Robert McNamara 30 years from now that what we've been doing is, "wrong, terribly wrong."

Goodnight.

How Bush's Drug Czar Fooled the Media and the American People


Remember back in 2007 when Bush's drug czar John Walters announced that cocaine prices were spiking and proceeded to do a proud drug war victory dance in newspapers nationwide? It was the high-water mark of his tenure in terms of positive press for the national drug strategy he'd championed shamelessly since taking office in late 2001. If drug prices were increasing, his argument claimed, then our campaign to rid the nation of drugs must be on the right track and our arsenal of brutal drug war tactics was being vindicated for all to see.

John Walters
Well, it looks like the truth finally caught up with him. Ryan Grim has a fascinating piece at Reason laying out the plotline behind Walters's victory parade and it's really a remarkable window into the epic dishonesty that characterizes not only John Walters, but the foundations of the drug war itself.

I recommend reading Grim's account to understand how badly Walters manipulated the data to make his case, but what I find most troubling in all of this is the role of the press in enabling such a transparent and self-serving deception. This is the story of a man who had already jettisoned all credibility through an endless series of similarly dubious pronouncements. ONDCP's bogus theatrics were sufficiently notorious by this point that even the conservative Washington Times balked at the opportunity to break the story of the Bush Administration's self-proclaimed surprise victory in the war on drugs.

It was Donna Leinwand at USA Today who gave Walters a podium from which to deceive the American public about the success of his policies. Drug policy was – and remains – Leinwand's beat at USA Today, thus she could easily have included a counterpoint in her coverage from one of the many experts that would gladly take her call. Instead, she uncritically passed along the claims of a notoriously deceitful propagandist to the American public, igniting a firestorm of press coverage that fraudulently propped up the drug czar's political agenda.

If there's a lesson to be learned from all this, it seems not to have sunk in yet. Only a month ago, Leinwand was still promoting misleading claims about the success of the war on cocaine. It is, of course, perfectly appropriate to quote the leaders of the worldwide war on drugs as they endeavor desperately and predictably to highlight any and all miniscule data points that favor their fixations. But that should only be half the story. If you base an entire news report on something a drug war cheerleader told you, then your story won’t be true and the public that relies upon you for drug policy news will end up understanding less about the issue than if they'd never read your article to begin with.

Ironically, widespread disgust with John Walters and the entrenched drug warrior mentality he represented has likely helped set the stage for the present political climate in which the drug policy debate has finally gone mainstream. The case for reform is at long last embraced and amplified by the same media that once ignored it at every turn. Prominent journalists themselves are speaking out and saying things that used to be off-limits.

Still, all those who rejoice at the impending collapse of the great drug war juggernaut should not lose sight of the fact that only 2 years ago, a single man was able to freeze time with a simple lie.

Walter Cronkite on the Drug War

Epilogue by Walter Cronkite at the close of ""The Drug Dilemma: War or Peace," The Cronkite Report, June 20, 1995:
Every American was shocked when Robert McNamara, one of the master architects of the Vietnam war, acknowledged that not only did he believe the war was, "wrong, terribly wrong," but that he thought so at the very time he was helping to wage it. That's a mistake we must not make in this 10th year of America's all-out War on Drugs. It's surely time for this nation to stop flying blind, stop accepting the assurances of politicians and other officials, that if we only keep doing what we are doing, add a little more cash, break down a few more doors, lock up a few more Jan Warrens and Nicole Richardsons, then we will see the light at the end of the tunnel. Victory will be ours. Tonight we have seen a war that in its broad outline is not working. And we've seen some less war-like ideas that appear to hold promise. We've raised more questions than we've answered, because that's where the Drug War stands today. We're a confused people, desperately in need of answers and leadership. Legalization seems to many like too dangerous an experiment; to others, the War on Drugs, as it is now conducted, seems inhumane and too costly. Is there a middle ground? Well, it seems to this reporter that the time has come for President Clinton to do what President Hoover did when prohibition was tearing the nation apart: appoint a bi-partisan commission of distinguished citizens, perhaps including some of the people we heard tonight, a blue-ribbon panel to re-appraise our drug policy right down to its very core, a commission with full investigative authority and the prestige and power to override bureaucratic concerns and political considerations. Such a commission could help us focus our thinking, escape the cliches of the Drug War in favor of scientific fact, and more rationally analyze the real scope of the problem, answer the questions that bedevil us, and present a comprehensive drug policy for the future. We cannot go into tomorrow with the same formulas that are failing today. We must not blindly add to the body count and the terrible cost of the War on Drugs, only to learn from another Robert McNamara 30 years from now that what we've been doing is, "wrong, terribly wrong." Goodnight.

"The potent smell of marijuana legalization is in the air"

This report from CBS News is a perfect example of how much the debate has changed. The story itself is great (a revealing look into the unimpressive origins of our marijuana laws), but it's the packaging and context that jumped out at me.

(CBS)  This story was written by Charles Cooper and Declan McCullagh as part of a new CBSNews.com special report on the evolving debate over marijuana legalization in the U.S. Click here for more of the series, Marijuana Nation: The New War Over Weed

The giant "Marijuana Nation" banner at the top of the page is emblematic of the mainstream media's sudden fascination with marijuana legalization. Unsurprisingly, the story is pulling huge web traffic thanks to Digg.com, whose visitors love stories about legalizing marijuana.

It took a long time, but the press has finally picked up on the fact that skeptical drug war reporting is extremely popular with the public. That simple concept appears to be reshaping and amplifying the drug policy debate right before our eyes.

Feature: Censorship in California -- MPP Marijuana Ad Campaign Hits Bumps as Stations Reject It

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) kicked off a TV ad campaign aimed at gaining support for a California marijuana legalization bill in the legislature on Wednesday, but ran into problems with several TV stations around the state, which either rejected the ad outright or just ignored MPP efforts to place it. Still, the spots are up and running on other Golden State stations.

Playing on California's budget crisis -- the state is $26 billion in the hole and currently issuing IOUs to vendors and laying off state workers -- the 30-second spots feature middle-aged suburban Sacramento housewife Nadene Herndon, who tells the camera:

"Sacramento says huge cuts to schools, health care, and police are inevitable due to the state's budget crisis. Even the state's parks could be closed. But the governor and the legislature are ignoring millions of Californians who want to pay taxes. We're marijuana consumers. Instead of being treated like criminals for using a substance safer than alcohol, we want to pay our fair share. Taxes from California's marijuana industry could pay the salaries of 20,000 teachers. Isn't it time?"

As Herndon finishes speaking, the words "Tax and regulate marijuana" appear on the screen, as well as a link to Controlmarijuana.org. Clicking on that link actually takes you to MPP's "MPP of California" web page.

"I'm a medical marijuana user," Herndon told the Chronicle. "I was at Oaksterdam University with my husband looking at some classes, and the chancellor [Richard Lee] came out and said I would be perfect for an ad they were thinking about. I talked to my husband, and he said maybe I should do it. It is a cause near and dear to my heart, so I did," she said.

The response from acquaintances has been very positive, she said. "I've gotten lots of positive messages, and a few who are worried for my safety or that my house might be vandalized," said Herndon. "I have gotten a couple of odd phone calls, though, so I've changed my number."

The spots are aimed at creating public support for AB 390, a bill introduced in February by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco). That bill would legalize the adult possession of marijuana and set up a system of taxed and regulated cultivation and sales.

The bill and the ad campaign come as support for marijuana legalization is on the rise in California. A recent Field poll showed support at 56%. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has gone on the record saying that legalization needs to be discussed. And, thanks to the state's medical marijuana laws, millions of Californians can see with their own eyes what a regime of legal marijuana sales might look like.

It would appear that marijuana legalization is a legitimate political topic in California, but that's not what a number of the state's major market TV stations think. At least six stations have rejected or ignored the ads. Oakland NBC affiliate KTVU and San Francisco ABC affiliate KGO declined to air the ad, as did San Jose NBC affiliate KNTV. Three Los Angeles stations, KABC, Fox affiliate KTTV, and KTLA also refused to air the ad.

KGO told MPP that they "weren't comfortable" with the spot, while KNTV said only that "standards rejected the spot." KABC claimed the ad "promotes marijuana use."

But while some local stations have balked, the ad is running on stations in Oakland, Sacramento, and San Francisco, as well as on MSNBC, CNBC, and CNN, via California cable operators.

"We are astonished that major California TV stations chose to censor a discussion that Governor Schwarzenegger has said our state should have on an issue supported by 56% of voters, according to the Field poll," said Aaron Smith, MPP California policy director. "The two million Californians who use marijuana in a given month deserve to have their voices heard -- and their tax dollars should help solve the fiscal emergency that threatens our schools, police and parks."

"That those stations would refuse to run the ad is appalling," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "This wasn't something we expected; this wasn't a stunt to get press coverage. This was intentionally a very innocuous ad."

Mirken took special umbrage at KABC's suggestion that the ad "promotes marijuana use." "It's a really tortured reading of that ad to claim that," he said. "The ad is simply recognizing the reality that there are lots of marijuana consumers out there unable to pay taxes on their purchases because we have consigned marijuana to a criminal underground," he said.

Alison Holcomb, drug policy director for the ACLU of Washington, told the Huffington Post that while the refusals don't "implicate the First Amendment from a legal standpoint," she believes the practice "undermines a core principle underlying the First Amendment: that the strength of a democracy flows from the exchange of ideas."

As Holcomb noted, the various stations' refusal to accept the ad is not a First amendment violation in the strict sense -- no governmental entity is suppressing MPP's right to seek air time to run its ad, and the stations are within their legal rights to refuse it. But the effect is to suppress MPP's ability to compete in the marketplace of ideas, and MPP smells a double standard.

"When the governor of the state has said we ought to have this debate, it would seem to mean letting all sides air their views," said Mirken. "Pretty much all of these stations that rejected our ad have aired ONDCP anti-marijuana ads, which are often blatantly dishonest, so they are effectively taking sides in the argument. That feels fundamentally unfair."

The battle continues. As of Thursday, MPP was effectively shut out of the Los Angeles market, except for the cable news networks. But Mirken said he hoped to have the ad on the air there by the weekend.

Ashley Kennedy, Journalist

Journalist Ashley Kennedy informs the audience of recent political events in the United States.

Mario Menendez, !Por Esto! Newspaper

Mario Menendez is the publisher of the Yucatan's newspaper !Por Esto! He was sued in New York City along with Narco News' Al Giordano, for libel in what now is considered the famous "Drug War on Trial" case. Part 1 of 5: Part 2 of 5: Part 3 of 5: Part 4 of 5: Part 5 of 5:

Al Giordano, Narconews.com

Al Giordano is the founder and publisher of Narco News, an online newspaper reporting on the drug war and democracy from Latin America. He is also the president of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism.

Boring Drug War Reporting From the Mainstream Press

Last week, the UN released a major report that, for the first time, acknowledges and condemns the growing movement to legalize drugs, while simultaneously endorsing decriminalization for many drug crimes. No matter what your views on drug policy may be, it's remarkable that the UN is jumping headfirst into the legalization debate. It's equally notable that they're calling on countries around the world to reconsider policies of arresting users for small amounts of drugs.

Tragically, however, reporters at the Associated Press and USA Today somehow managed to take this groundbreaking report and turn it into something far less interesting. Both stories focus almost entirely on fluctuations in illicit drug production, which should be perfectly predictable by now to anyone who's followed international drug policy over a period of years. It's worth mentioning, but there's nothing new or exciting about it, particularly in the context of a report that was otherwise overflowing with controversial, politically-charged content.

Both stories buried the report's discussion of decriminalization, with USA Today's Donna Leinwand even managing to withhold mention of it until the very last line. What could have been a thought-provoking story about the international drug war leadership calling for fewer drug arrests was instead just another annual accounting of the drug war's progress (or lack thereof).

The point here isn't that an avowed partisan such as myself wants more media coverage that's favorable to my views. Of course I do. But my own prejudices notwithstanding, it's just a fact that the political focus of this report was unprecedented and powerfully newsworthy. The document literally begins on its first page with a heated discussion of how controversial the drug war has become, yet AP and USA Today failed to even mention this central theme of the report.

It's not a matter of taking sides, but rather simply acknowledging controversy when that's a major dimension of the story. It's in your interest to do this. The vigorous political debate that now surrounds the war on drugs is the easily the most effective angle for attracting readership to your drug policy coverage. Ironically, Leinwand's USA Today piece has links at the top of the page encouraging readers to submit the story to news aggregator sites including Digg and Reddit, which can exponentially increase your traffic. And guess what kinds of stories Digg and Reddit users are looking for. It's hilarious to find USA Today deliberately courting traffic from online communities that are obsessed with drug policy reform, while simultaneously ignoring the hooks that appeal to those audiences. Framing the story around the topics of legalization and decriminalization wouldn’t just have been appropriate under the circumstances, it would have made for a better headline, more links, discussion and traffic.

If you don’t believe me, write the story I'm suggesting and watch it outperform your initial coverage. I dare you.

Wall Street Journal Thinks Americans Still Love the Drug War

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal interview with new drug czar Gil Kerlikowske is generating discussion due to Kerlikowske's statement that we must move beyond the "war on drugs" analogy. But Gary Fields's piece also included a dubious assumption that shouldn’t escape notice:

Mr. Kerlikowske's comments are a signal that the Obama administration is set to follow a more moderate -- and likely more controversial -- stance on the nation's drug problems. Prior administrations talked about pushing treatment and reducing demand while continuing to focus primarily on a tough criminal-justice approach.

This is controversial? There is no evidence of that. In fact, everywhere you look, you'll see a changing political climate with regards to drug policy:

1. Obama made repeated statements in favor of various drug policy reforms on the campaign trail, including support for medical marijuana, treatment over incarceration, needle exchange, and fixing the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity. In a hard-fought campaign, these were among his least controversial positions.

2. Support for legalizing marijuana is surging in America, currently polling as high as 52%. Since taking office, Obama's biggest controversy with regards to drug policy was his statement in opposition to legalizing marijuana.

3. A recent Zogby poll found that 76% of Americans believe the war on drugs has failed. This view was held by a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

The idea that there's anything controversial about moving towards a more moderate drug policy is just false on its face. The opposite is true. Americans are tired of the "tough criminal justice approach" and they elected a president who said he'd bring a new perspective to this issue.

If anything, it would have made more sense to say these policy shifts will most likely make our drug policy less controversial. Certainly, that's what Kerlikowske expects by making these conciliatory remarks. He's pandering to the growing public sentiment that the drug war is getting out of hand. Seriously, why on earth would anyone expect controversy over this? To the contrary, people find it reassuring, which is exactly why the White House is framing it this way. I thought that was obvious.

Thus, with this one seemingly harmless quip, "likely more controversial," the WSJ ends up missing the entire point of the story and utterly misdiagnosing what Kerlikowske represents. Public attitudes about the war on drugs are changing, thereby forcing our political leadership to begin implementing certain popular reforms while generally reframing the entire issue.

Any questions?

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