Sometime in the not-too-distant future, when the Drug War is over and America's long, failed experiment with Prohibition is but a distant, unpleasant memory, historians of the era will likely look back upon the month of June, 1998, as something of a turning point. In every battle, and especially in those fought by a principled few against a seemingly omnipotent but ultimately doomed regime, there are such turning points, often unrecognized at the time, which mark basic changes in the terms of engagement and signal a step forward in the progression toward victory. Gandhi, who knew a bit about noble struggle against overwhelming odds, put it this way: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they crack you down, and then you win."
Over the past two weeks, several things have transpired which signal just such a step forward for the drug policy reform movement. First, on June 8th, the opening day of the United Nations' Special Session on Narcotics, a two-page ad was placed in the New York Times. The ad contained an open letter to UN Secretary General Koffi Annan, signed by over 500 prominent individuals, stating that the drug war is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself, and calling on the Secretary to lead a discussion of alternative solutions.
The response to the ad was global and immediate. From pained mutterings at the UN Session itself to editorial comment in many of the world's most widely-read newspapers. In response to that outcry came a second significant event, Barry McCaffrey, the US Drug Czar, addressed the issue of the reform movement itself. First, in response to reporters' questions, he denigrated the "small group of intellectuals" as "the mouse that roared." But just days later, in written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, McCaffrey warned, "There is a carefully camouflaged, exorbitantly funded, well-heeled elitist group whose ultimate goal is to legalize drug use in the United States."
McCaffrey went on to say, "Through a slick misinformation campaign, these individuals perpetuate a fraud on the American people, a fraud so devious that even some of the nation's most respected newspapers and sophisticated media are capable of echoing their falsehoods."
Then, as the story grew, Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), an inveterate drug warrior who has been known to publicly extol the virtues of "our first drug czar," the propagandist Harry Anslinger, suggested to the press that the time had come for the Judiciary Committee, of which he is a member, to hold hearings on "legalization." Noting that "today, many powerful voices in our society are supporting a variety of legalization policies" Biden called for the committee to take a "hard, unblinking look" at the issue.
Now, it is indeed flattering that Barry McCaffrey believes that the reform movement is so intelligent and "carefully camouflaged" that it can "mislead" even the nation's most professional and well-informed editors and media elite. And it is certainly amusing that he ascribes to the modest and still nascent movement the properties of an "exorbitantly well-funded" operation. But what is truly significant in McCaffrey's comments is that despite the fact that the movement, which is in reality a collection of very different groups with very different politics and visions of reform, is neither brilliantly deceptive nor extravagantly funded, it has reached the point, finally, where it can no longer be safely ignored.
As to Senator Biden, there can be no doubt that the hearings he has in mind will be orchestrated for the purpose of prohibitionist propaganda. In fact, the only reason why such a "look" at the issue of drug policy reform by Senator Biden's Committee will be "unblinking" is that it is likely that its members will keep their eyes tightly shut to any and all evidence of the inherent flaws in the prohibitionist model. But here again, in raising the level of the prohibitionist response to the growing movement to such heights, there is an implicit acknowledgment that prohibitionists can no longer pretend that the debate does not exist at all.
A man who walks the streets in daylight, confident of his surroundings and sure of himself, will barely notice the footsteps approaching from behind. It is only the nervous, the timid, the one with something to fear, scurrying through the shadows in an attempt to conceal his mission who turns around to check his back. Let the record show that it was in June, 1998 that the prohibitionists, in the wake of an international gathering which was supposed to trumpet the solidarity of the entire world in service to their war machine, felt the need to look behind and take fearful note of the relatively tiny but steadily growing movement for reform striding purposefully toward them. And let there be no mistake that for reformers, engaged against a global war machine with nothing save truth and justice in their arsenal, that act, the simple but telling look over the shoulder, stands as the unmistakable marker of a new phase in the struggle. A road sign of hope on the path toward the defeat of a once seemingly invincible foe.
Adam J. Smith