This week, a group of more than 100 Kentucky farmers filed suit in Federal Court seeking the right to grow industrial hemp without having the federal government swoop in and seize their property. Also this week, in California, the San Mateo Health Department voted to present a proposal for medical marijuana research which would simultaneously make them the legitimate supplier for 2,000 patients, thus obviating much of the need for the embattled buyers' club. These two groups, farmers on the one hand and a county health department on the other, would seem about as upstanding and mainstream as anyone who has run up against the excesses of the federal drug war. But be that as it may, a look at recent history informs us that it would be foolish to expect the government, and more specifically Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, to be supportive of either of these common-sense efforts.
Industrial hemp was a staple crop in Kentucky until early this century when federal agencies decided -- without legal basis, it is being argued -- to forbid its cultivation. Recently, around the globe, hemp has been re-introduced as a cash crop. Farmers in Canada, for instance, just won approval to plant the stuff, which, in addition to being widely useful, requires neither harmful pesticides nor much in the way of fertilizer to prosper. A burgeoning American hemp products industry, until now forced to rely upon costly imported materials, eagerly awaits a domestic crop.
"Nonsense," says the Drug Czar. The movement to legalize industrial hemp is nothing but a "smokescreen" for the legalization of marijuana. McCaffrey likes to use words like "nonsense," as they fit in well with his preferred style of argument... dismissing his adversaries as know- nothing and their positions as too absurd to merit serious consideration. On at least two occasions, McCaffrey has publicly ridiculed the assertions of one hemp advocate and actor as the opinions of "noted agronomists such as Woody Harrelson." But the truth is that the legalization of industrial hemp cultivation is supported by respected bodies across North America -- including the government of Canada, which legalized it earlier this year -- as well as by the farmers themselves.
But McCaffrey's derisive dismissal of those with whom he disagrees is not an isolated incident, it has surfaced before, and in each case McCaffrey has used the tactic to cover for the fact that he was either woefully misinformed, or else simply lying.
In the aftermath of the passage of Proposition 215 in California for instance, McCaffrey told the San Francisco Chronicle on August 16, 1996, "There is not a shred of scientific evidence that shows that smoked marijuana is useful or needed. This is not science. This is not medicine. This is a cruel hoax." Then, on December 30 1996, McCaffrey was asked by CNN's Carl Rochelle, "is there any evidence... that marijuana is useful in a medical situation?" McCaffrey's response: "No, none at all. There are hundreds of studies that indicate that it isn't." The reaction of reformers and researchers to this misstatement of fact was so swift and convincing that on January 2, ONDCP's Chief Counsel Pat Seitz, appearing on the CNN show "Burden of Proof," tried to retract the Drug Czar's mistaken statements, insisting, "He has not said there is no research. He has not said there is no research."
Further, McCaffrey has ridiculed the entire idea of medicinal marijuana, calling it "Cheech and Chong medicine," as well as saying "it's preposterous to think that any qualified doctor would tell a patient to inhale the fumes from burning leaves." This despite supportive positions for medical marijuana research and/or access by such organizations as the American Public Health Association, the California Medical Association and the British Medical Association, as well as editorials in favor of medical marijuana access by the editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Lancet Medical Journal and the New England Journal of Medicine.
As a former four star general, perhaps McCaffrey is not used to having his positions questioned. And as an ardent drug warrior, perhaps he has been told that the only real opposition to the prosecution of the drug war comes from the radical fringe. This would account for both his willingness to speak disingenuously on the issues and his mocking tone when addressing or referring to his ideological opposition.
But McCaffrey is no longer a general, he is a highly placed official in a democratically elected administration. And as such, his positions are, and should be, open to legitimate and vigorous examination and criticism. And the drug war, as public policy, is no longer above reproach. It is, in fact, being called into question by an ever-expanding number of mainstream Americans. On both counts, the Drug Czar seems woefully out of touch with reality. And if he doesn't come around soon, his tactics of derision and obfuscation are going to cost him what little credibility he has left.
Adam J. Smith