Forbes Exposes McCaffrey's Crusade Against "Cheech and Chong Medicine" 7/28/00

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Daniel Forbes is well known to DRCNet readers as the reporter who broke the story of the drug czar's efforts to bring Hollywood and the magazine industry on board for the administration's effort to implant anti-drug messages in the mass media. In a series of pieces for salon.com, Forbes, a New York-based freelancer who writes on media and social policy, detailed the workings of an insidious payola-style arrangement between the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONCP, the drug czar's office) and elements of the entertainment media.

Forbes' pieces created a firestorm of criticism for drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey and his efforts to propagandize his way to victory in the war on drugs, and the critics have only grown louder as McCaffrey recently attempted to expand his media manipulation to the movies.

Now, Forbes has published a new piece, "Fighting 'Cheech and Chong' Medicine: Did the White House drug office go too far in trying to stop the spread of medical marijuana initiatives" (http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2000/07/27/ondcp/), in which he locates the genesis of the drug czar's $2 billion public-private media manipulation campaign in efforts to derail the medical marijuana movement. Relying on court documents filed in Conant v. McCaffrey, in which California doctors sued to prevent McCaffrey from impeding their efforts to recommend or prescribe medical marijuana, Forbes details a series of meetings among ONDCP, other government officials, and prominent private sector backers of the drug war.

Those meetings, as documented in minutes made available to Forbes, clearly outlined a strategy designed to thwart the medical marijuana movement, although it remained hidden within the broader, youth-directed media campaign. And, writes Forbes, those meetings also laid the groundwork for the effort to have taxpayers ante up to supplement the corporate largesse behind those "this is your brain on drugs" ads.

DRCNet spoke with Forbes on July 28th. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

WOL: The real story seems to be buried deep in your article. You've got McCaffrey and others (government and private sector drug warriors) plotting in meetings to undercut the medical marijuana movement. You've obtained these meeting minutes that document the drug warriors' concern about the medical marijuana movement spreading.

Forbes: This is a complicated story -- you have to read it through to the end, and then you say "ah-ha." It works through the accretion of detail. The story builds brick by brick until you reach the inescapable conclusion. You see quotes from James Copple, who was running the Community Anti-drug Coalition of America at the time, saying things like, "We'll work with California and Arizona to undo and stop the spread of legalization to the other 48 states... Need to go state by state. $ to do media." And you have Mike Townsend from the Partnership for a Drug-free America saying the effort would require "$175 million. Get fdl $." And so on. When you add those things up, you arrive at a real indication that one important motivation for the media campaign was precisely to derail the medical marijuana movement.

WOL: Did these activities, these meetings, cross the line from merely sleazy to outright illegality?

Forbes: There are two possible violations of the law here. The first relates to the wording of the enabling legislation for the new taxpayer-supported side of the media campaign. That legislation, which was passed in October 1997, said ONDCP must submit its strategy for approval by both the House and the Senate and include "guidelines to ensure and certify that none of the funds will be used for partisan political purposes." The premise of my story is that a main, if not the sole motivation of the campaign was the attempt to curtail medical marijuana initiatives and derail similar elections in other states.

WOL: Does the fact that the language refers to "partisan" political purposes provide an out for the drug czar?

Forbes: I don't see any particular reason why it should solely refer to Democrats versus Republicans. If you have two sides, it's a partisan issue. The public face of the paid media campaign ignores medical marijuana -- it is not explicitly addressed in the advertising -- but it does set a climate inimical to the use of illegal drugs under any circumstances.

WOL: You said there was a second area of possible violations of the law?

Forbes: On the other illegality issue, Thomas Haines of the Partnership for Responsible Drug Information (http://www.prdi.org/), who is certainly a knowledgeable source in my book, made the point that "the use of government resources to politic on controversial issues is clearly against ethics, as well as the law stating that federal employees cannot take public positions for or against legislation under consideration." That is something some of those high-priced drug reform lawyers might want to look at.

WOL: What kind of response have you had to this story?

Forbes: I have to say it's been disappointing, and key to that was probably that the Associated Press hadn't deemed it worthy of their attention. Salon contacted a bunch of reporters, and so did I. The thing you have to understand is that the story is not a smoking pistol. I didn't obtain a smoking pistol, but a very warm gun. It's a complicated story, you have to read it through to the end, and then you say "ah-ha." But there's no "gotcha," no easy hook for a reporter to hang his hat on. But it'll be on DRCNet, and they drive the national media, right? And I'll be interviewed by Dick Cowan tonight on the Marijuana News (http://www.marijuananews.com).

WOL: You testified before the House Government Reform Committee, Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources back on July 12 as the representatives reviewed McCaffrey's media campaign. What was that like?

Forbes: Although I did some additional reporting on this story after my testimony, I gave a pretty good summary of the story in open testimony before the committee. In fact, it was in the process of seeking to generate some new material for this testimony to make it worthwhile for them to listen to me that I discovered this new material. One thing I can speculate on is the fact that McCaffrey testified before me, and then it was announced that he would be available for questions afterward. While I was discussing this matter, most reporters went and talked to him instead.

WOL: What are you up to now?

Forbes: I need to approach editors on three stories I have in the pipeline. These are more analytical-type magazine pieces, not necessarily scoops. Still, I want to encourage your readers to keep me in mind if they run across any interesting tidbits. My e-mail address is [email protected]

WOL: What kind of results to your think your work has achieved?

Forbes: First, I want to say that I've been really lucky, and luck plays a role in all of this. The story was originally intended for a trade magazine, but with them it was death by a thousand cuts, and they would only have published an eviscerated version. The New Yorker was interested, but their long lead-time had me worried I would get scooped. Fortunately, Salon picked it up before that happened.

I will say that I was able to shine a light on a program of covert propaganda and I think that is something the public needs to be aware of. This sort of story is like catnip for any reporter; how could you not pursue a story like that? More specifically, the stories did change federal policy, or, as the Washington Post put it, the ONDCP had to say, "We didn't look at scripts in advance and we won't do it anymore." On the other hand, this is still ongoing, at least as of last spring. The TV networks are still receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of financial credits that they can exercise if they choose.

WOL: Anything else you want to add?

Forbes: Well, I've been smeared and the ONDCP has attempted -- unsuccessfully -- to trash my work, but that only fueled my investigative fires. There is also one key point on the movies angle. On the day the story broke, Eric Lichtblau of the Los Angeles Times interviewed ONDCP spokesman Bob Weiner before ONDCP got their stories straight. Weiner told him that studios could indeed submit finished movies for credits the same way TV studios do. I don't know if that will actually happen, but that was the official statement from the ONDCP. It hasn't received the attention it deserves.

See last week's issue for a discussion of the ONDCP media buys and other topics with famed actor/producer/activist Mike Farrell, http://www.drcnet.org/wol/146.html#farrell in our archives.

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Issue #147, 7/28/00 Corrections System Continues to Bloat With 458,000 Drug War Prisoners: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Justice Policy Institute Crunch the Numbers in Separate Reports | Supreme Court Rules, Federal Sentencing Structures Tremble | See You in Philly: Shadow Convention Set to Convene Sunday | Forbes Exposes McCaffrey's Crusade Against "Cheech and Chong Medicine" | Drug Policy Letter Issue Focuses on Drug War Prisoners, DRCNet Launches New Prison/Incarceration Info List | Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other: Important Amendments to Anti-Methamphetamine Act | Newsbrief: Recalcitrant Feds to Appeal Oakland Marijuana Club Decision | Liar of the Week | Media Scan: salon.com, Washington Post | AlertS: Colombia, Mandatory Minimums, California, New York, Washington | HEA Campaign | Event Calendar | Editorial: Shocking Incrementalism
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