Adam J. Smith, Associate Director, [email protected]
One of the greatest rewards of a career in activism is the opportunity one is afforded to share ideas with learned men and women. I had such an opportunity this week in the form of an hour-long phone conversation with a professor of sociology at a University in New York. The professor, who will remain nameless for the simple reason that I haven't been able to reach him to ask permission to use his name, is a regular subscriber to The Week Online, and an avid and enthusiastic analyst of both the human and the social condition. On the night we spoke this week, he was in rare form.
"I think," he began, "that in trying to reform drug policy, you don't know what you're up against." Yes, I replied, I had a pretty good idea what I was up against. A global illicit market producing hundreds of billions per year in cash, much of which ends up in the pockets of corrupt government officials, militaries and seemingly legitimate corporations. A law enforcement/prison industrial complex grown enormous with the arrest and incarceration of literally millions of poor and powerless folks. An intelligence and military community ever more dependent upon drug war funding. A...
He cut me off.
"No, no, no. That's not what I'm talking about," he said. I'm talking about the reason why the issue of drug policy reform is still a hard sell in liberal circles. I mean, you've got the libertarian right, you've got the old-style liberals, you have a small but growing group in the middle. But despite the fact that the social justice aspects of the drug war should appeal to most of the people in this country who consider themselves liberal or progressive, there hasn't been a real move by the establishment on that side to back what you're doing."
Knowing that the man on the other end of the phone considers himself a strong liberal, I was naturally curious as to where he was going with this. OK, I said. Tell me why.
"It's ominous" he said. "And it's bigger than I initially thought."
"They're really Communitarians. They believe in social justice, just like liberals, but they don't believe in individual rights. That's why the drug war doesn't really register with them as an overriding evil. That whole 'it takes a village' thing? That's what it means. They're green, they recycle, they care about the poor in their own way, but they're willing to sacrifice freedom itself to achieve their vision of progress."
Libertarians call that socialist, I told him. He laughed.
"Right! They've taken over much of the Democratic party and part of the Republican party as well. They have no regard for privacy, for the right to be left alone by the government, for the whole concept of civil liberties. Feds watching your bank account, mandatory drug testing, national ID's. They cannot fathom, they do not agree, that maybe, just maybe, people have the right, the God-given right, to put what they want into their own bodies, even if their motivation is nothing more than to feel good."
So, I asked, you feel betrayed by your liberal compatriots?
"I'm horrified," he said, "but Ira Glasser (National Director of the ACLU) told me twenty-five years ago what we have to do."
"Yup. Brilliant guy, Ira. Y'know, I've always said that Ira Glasser had everything figured out back in 1972. He's just been waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to him."
OK, so what does Ira Glasser say?
"There needs to be a renewed, vigorous discussion of civil liberties in this country. We need to begin the process of reintroducing the issue of individual liberties into the public and political discourse. It's not okay to trade freedom for order. It's not okay to trade freedom for efficiency. It's not even okay to trade freedom for social justice, whatever one's conception of that is, because you wind up with neither."
That's it? I asked.
"That's it. But remember what I said. The enemy has become mainstream. And it won't be easy."
I hung up with a smile. A very excitable guy, my professor friend.
This morning I came into the office and opened my email. Buried amidst the flood of important and not-so-important notes was one from another friend of mine. This one, a fellow activist. It was about the Hatch-Feinstein Methamphetamine bill. Cosponsored by one Republican and one Democratic senator, the bill would make it illegal to transmit over the Internet any information that is likely to be used to break any state or federal drug law.
My activist friend, along with many of our colleagues, believes that the bill will prohibit life-saving information on syringe-exchange, on safe injecting practices and on growing marijuana for medicinal use, at the very least. The bill would outlaw speech itself, in the name of protecting society from the horrors of finding drug recipes online. I thought about what the professor had said. I was no longer smiling.