After the Attacks: Drug Reformers Confront a Brave New World 9/21/01

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September 11, when suicide hijackers destroyed the World Trade Center and severely damaged the Pentagon, was, in the widely-repeated phrase, "the day everything changed." But not everything did change. In the United States, the drug war has not gone away, the police have not stopped arresting drug users and sellers, the prisons have not emptied of drug offenders, the illicit profits of the drug trade have not stopped accruing. Drug reformers know this and as, like other Americans, they struggle to comprehend the enormity of this attack and its implications, they also grapple with how to pursue the drug reform agenda in a political environment radically transformed in a matter of horrifying moments.

DRCNet spoke with a number of leading drug reformers and drug reform organizations this week about where the movement goes from here. In an indication of the supercharged atmosphere in the country at this time, several respondents expressed deep concern about saying things "that might get me beaten up on the street." The interviews yielded a nearly unanimous sense of foreboding about the future of civil liberties in this country, but also diverse and even antagonistic ideas about what this new era means for drug reform and whether and how aggressively reformers should react to the attacks. In particular, the tactic of arguing that the huge illicit profits generated by drug prohibition may have helped finance these attacks has proven extremely controversial.

Kevin Zeese does not shy away from making that argument. "We cannot fail to address the link between terrorism and US drug policy," the head of Common Sense for Drug Policy (http://www.csdp.org) told DRCNet. "It is coming out, and our opponents will seek to use this to their advantage. We have to engage, we have to make people see that the enemy is not drug users but drug prohibition."

Zeese sketched an outline of the argument drug reformers could use. "First, the drug war funds terrorism," he explained. "Drug profits fund terrorist networks. Second, the drug war enriches our enemies by providing them with billions in underground revenue. Prohibition thus becomes an important issue to move our struggle forward," he said.

For the Institute for Policy Analysis' director of drug policy Sanho Tree, staying quiet on the drug money-terrorism link is similarly impossible. "It's coming right at us, and the question is not whether but how we respond," he told DRCNet. "You can be sure that [drug czar nominee John] Walters will be bringing it up, talking about narco-terrorism and the IRA in Colombia. The drug warriors are rallying; [former drug czar press spokesman Bob] Weiner, who last week was critical of Walters, is calling for fast confirmation now," he noted. But, said Tree in a remark echoed by everyone who spoke with DRCNet, "it has to be done in a very sensitive way because of public attitudes."

Those attitudes come into play particularly when reformers attempt to make connections between the pathologies of the drug war and US foreign policies that may have contributed to the intense hostility toward the US so savagely expressed last week. Tree, for example, is unlikely to win friends among the revenge-minded majority when he attempts to tug at some of the deeper strands.

"Fighting terrorism is like fighting the war on drugs," he said. "If you attack them in orthodox ways, you only make the situation worse. We in the drug reform movement are familiar with how drug users are portrayed and how complex social problems are reduced to certain chemicals. That is the same kind of dehumanization that you see both in the war and drugs and in the war on terrorism," Tree added. "We are already dehumanizing our intended targets. We don't know who we are going to strike, but we are talking about getting them. That is the same trap that the terrorists themselves fell into."

Long-time California cannabis activist Chris Conrad of the Family Council on Drug Awareness (http://www.fcda.org) agrees both on using the narco-terror nexus as a line of attack and with the deeper critique of American society. "We have to use this," he told DRCNet. "The other side is going to dump this on us anyway, and we have to be ready to point out that if people are concerned that our appetite for drugs is feeding foreign terrorists, the answer is regulating the market, not more war on drug users," he said.

"If we change as a society to help and protect drug users, we can prevent that money from going to all those bad people. But if we continue along our current prohibitionist path, terrorist organizations will continue to profit from that," Conrad added. "We can also argue that this has come about at least in part because of the drug war. If you want more terrorism, just keep our same policies."

Conrad acknowledged the political dangers of this line of attack -- "We're walking through a mine field with this" -- but then ventured in even deeper. "Rationality has suffered a big hit in this whole attack," he told DRCNet. "I have people who tell me they are liberals, but they seem to think that for the US to kill a large number of civilians is an acceptable response. Also, there is a huge disconnect -- a lot of people think America has no responsibility for this. It is the same with the drug war. Most people think pot has always been illegal and for good reason. We are a people without history. We need to fundamentally rethink everything. That is not a popular sentiment, I know, but reasonableness has gone out the window."

Other reformers see no utility and great danger in such talk. Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org) told DRCNet reformers should cool it on the terror connection. "I would urge my colleagues to step aside from whole terrorism issue," he said. "Let's focus on our issue, not spin the tragedy of the last week to our political advantage. Nothing will hurt us more than being perceived as insensitive to the tragedy that occurred. If we think drug policy is more important than the safety and security of the American public, we would be dead wrong," he said.

"When and if the other side tries to blame us for the tragedy, then we will have to come back and respond, but to try to make that connection ourselves will look like we're trying to make political hay out of the death of 6,000 Americans. We don't want to do that," Stroup concluded.

"Drug reform is good domestic policy and we should stick to the clear issues around drug policy," warned Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (http://www.cjpf.org). "Our job is not to jump into the current fascination with the problem of terrorism," he told DRCNet. "It is clear, however, that people are thinking about the connection between drug money and terrorism, and we should not be afraid to lay out our analysis. But we need to remember that our silence or speaking out is not going to be a critical factor in this. What is clear is that to talk about the issue ineptly will certainly anger people already enraged by these heinous attacks on the country."

DRCNet Executive Director David Borden took a slightly more proactive stance. "This is an issue that has come up before," said Borden, "and it is certainly something that should be pointed out." But, said Borden, reformers should not jump the gun on the issue. "Clearly Osama bin Laden has a variety of funding sources, and it would be a mistake, both tactically and intellectually, to blame this attack specifically on drug prohibition. On the other hand, prohibition clearly is one of the major forces making the world a more dangerous place, and one can only speculate what the course of world events would have been without it."

Cliff Thornton, President of Efficacy, a Connecticut-based drug reform advocacy group (http://www.efficacy-online.org), had little time for cautions. "I'm in favor of pushing forward on the terrorism issue," he told DRCNet, "and I don't have any concerns about spinning the issue. We know that some percentage of illegal drug profits go to terrorist organizations or states. How are we going to end that unless we bankrupt the illicit drug economy by ending prohibition?" he asked.

"Going after these policies is what will work, not trying to play political ball so we won't be seen as unpatriotic," said Thornton. "The trouble with politics is we never get what we want when we play politics. Harm reduction is good, but it only goes so far. We need to follow this to its logical end and start talking legalization."

Dave Fratello, of the Campaign for New Drug Policies (http://www.drugreform.org) flinches at such talk. "We should lay low. Making this argument does not give us a strategic advantage that we didn't have the day before this happened," he told DRCNet. "We're off the radar screen when it comes to terrorism, and I don't think it helps us to be aggressively contrarian at a time when the country is trying to unite. The wounds are fresh and you don't want to go rubbing salt in them, said Fratello. "There is a very real risk of a nasty backlash."

Charles Thomas, President of the newly-formed Unitarian Universalists for Drug Policy Reform, also voiced serious doubts about the wisdom of dramatizing any possible drug trade funding of "prime suspect" Osama bin Laden. Making a point well taken in these days of much official finger-pointing and little available evidence, Thomas told DRCNet the movement needed to react with caution. "The US government needs to be sure who did it before taking any action, and drug reformers need to be sure that drug money has anything to do with it before going on the attack," said Thomas.

"Even if that were proven, I'm still very ambivalent about making the connection. First, the nation is still grieving right now. Many Americans do not have a high regard for the drug reform movement as it is, and if they see us as being opportunistic, that could really box us in," he continued. "And I don't see the American people being ready to say terrorism is so bad we might as well legalize drugs to end terrorism. Instead, people will just have this drug-terrorism connection that could justify even more oppressive policies."

According to Thomas, a more useful tack would be to start offering actual models of what a regulated drug distribution system might look like. "If people have the idea that we have to have crack in vending machines or heroin at the corner store to defeat terrorists, they will say it is not worth the trade-off," he told DRCNet. "But if we can demonstrate a range of workable policies -- such as the Swiss model of nonprofit medical clinics distributing drugs -- that do not bolster a criminal market, do not attract large numbers of new users, but do improve the lives of users and reduce other social problems, including the possible funding of terrorist acts, then we have a chance."

Eric Sterling would also like to see a more pragmatic approach. "In general, the drug reform movement is pathetically non-strategic," he told DRCNet. "It wastes a phenomenal amount of time on trivia while there is an unwillingness to respond to serious discussions. Our strategy has to look at the end game, and I have written about this, but got no substantive responses. The movement so far has not figured out how to break the orthodoxy about drugs in this country. Prohibition won't end because of well-written letters to the editor," Sterling argued. "You have to understand that we have 16 US senators from states that have overwhelmingly adopted medical marijuana laws, yet none of them have introduced a medical marijuana bill."

If reformers are all over the map on the terror connection, they huddle together defensively as they confront a strong push for increased police powers in the wake of the attacks. With Attorney General John Ashcroft crafting new legislation by the minute, the movement is gearing up for a nasty fight with the "anything for security" crowd.

As NORML's Stroup pointed out, drug users are often the victims of new security measures even if not aimed directly at them. "It's been years since we had a skyjacker in this country, but in the meantime some 60,000 nonviolent drug offenders are arrested at airports every year." (Sterling sardonically retorted, "If you're going through a security checkpoint, that they have the right to search, and that they will, what are you thinking, you have some sort of Harry Potter cloak of invisibility?") But Stroup's larger point stands: Drug users are likely to get caught up in whatever new anti-terrorist security measures are coming down the pike.

"If it is necessary to increase security to protect public safety -- and it is, I don't want to live through this again -- there must be a way to do that that doesn't sacrifice our cherished civil liberties. Our challenge is to get in that debate and do it in an effective manner. I'm not willing to live in a fascist state or give up those liberties our forefathers fought for. We have to do this in a sensitive manner, we have to raise these legitimate concerns, but we must let America know we share their patriotism, love of country, and concern for the safety of fellow citizens."

Both Fratello and Sterling see new police powers and restrictions on civil liberties as inevitable in the current situation. "It will happen," Sterling flatly declared. Fratello agreed. "As a nation, we are going to accept further curtailments of civil rights in the name of this new war. I don't see any way around it."

The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation (http://www.drugpolicy.org), based in Manhattan, is still grappling with the disaster that shook the island last week, but the pace of events is shortening its mourning period. "Our most immediate reaction is grief," research associate Matt Biggs told DRCNet. "We're just getting underway with an organization-wide discussion of the implications, what is the meaning of this for an open society. We haven't advanced much beyond that point yet," said Briggs. "Unfortunately, the politicians in Washington are moving fast, so that means we must move quickly, too."

IPS's Sanho Tree went monosyllabic when queried about the civil liberties issue. "Oy," he muttered before recovering. "This is another parallel with the drug war," he said. "That more funding, more police and military power will make us safer. It was an illusion with the war on drugs, it is an illusion with terrorism. As with the drug war, getting more technology, more military power will only aggravate the situation. That is the paradigm and this country is about to deepen it."

If the reformers sound fatalistic about a creeping police state, some see opportunities as well, especially around drug war funding. "One can make the very strong argument that in a time of war you have to focus your national priorities, and arresting pot smokers is at a minimum a low priority," said Sterling. "If we are serious and straightforward about setting priorities, this could serve as an occasion for decriminalizing pot. It would free up hundreds of thousands of law enforcement man hours."

The Unitarians' Thomas also stressed budgets and funding of the drug war. "We can beat the opposition to the punch about the fact that scarce resources are misappropriated," he said. "There are some connections between terrorism and the drug war, the biggest being that we spend all this time and money hunting down 1.5 million drug offenders every year when we could instead be spending that money protecting Americans from terrorism," said Thomas.

"It's time to rethink our spending priorities. Do we want a war on drugs or a war on terrorism? The US gave $43 million to the Taliban as a reward for cutting opium production. What kind of crazy drug war is this that it's so important that we would fund a really extremist group like the Taliban?" Thomas spluttered. "It is such an oppressive extremist regime, we shouldn't have given them a dime. And we knew all along that they were aiding and abetting terrorists."

For Sterling, it's all about politics, and politics is all about priorities. "There will be an enormous increase in costs to cities and states to protect the nation's infrastructure, not just airports, but water supply, the electric grid, transmissions lines, schools, stadiums, a host of places that will require heightened security. Uncle Sam will not pay the bill for all of that," Sterling pointed out, and therein lies opportunity, he said.

But Sterling also had some harsh words for his fellow reformers. "The challenge for drug policy reformers is to engage in their community debates on these priorities," he said. "Part of the problem for drug policy reformers is their near obsessive focus on drug policy. On any other issue, drug reformers are not present or are talking only about drugs, to the irritation of the rest of the community. Thus even when talking about priorities, most drug policy reformers make little contribution to the broader discussion in their communities."

In the meantime, life goes on and so do the policy battles. CNDP's Fratello told DRCNet the attacks would not affect upcoming efforts to place similar initiatives on the ballot in Florida, Ohio, and Michigan. "Not unless they suspend the elections," he said.

And DRCNet's Borden reported that the effort to repeal the anti-drug provision of the Higher Education Act (HEA) continues to move forward. "I've spoken with some of our contacts on Capitol Hill, and no one knows what's going to happen with anything in Congress," he said, "but the [Education and the Workforce] Committee isn't going out of business, and unlike crime legislation, education is a policy area with relatively little connection to anti-terrorist measures. On the grassroots side, students seem to continue to be strongly interested in this. The first student government resolution of the school year opposing the HEA drug provision actually passed on September 12, and more such votes are coming up fast. Just today the student-run NYPIRG (New York Public Interest Research Group) reaffirmed its commitment to mount a major statewide campaign on this issue -- even though their national office is two blocks from World Trade Center Plaza and is still closed. I've also been told that registrations for the upcoming Students for Sensible Drug Policy conference (November 10-11) have continued to come in."

Finally, Sterling touched on an ugly topic no one wants to talk about. There are an unknown number of Americans who, at least in part, felt a certain cold glee in the attacks on American power and arrogance, if not at the huge loss of life. They don't show up on TV, but they, too, are Americans, and many of them have been embittered by the war on drugs. "People have some intuitive sense that they have something in common with terrorists, namely that they are outlaws," noted Sterling. "They feel stigmatized as outlaws, and fearful of any measure against outlaws."

And angry enough at their own government, perhaps, to find some satisfaction in seeing it take a blow like this. Now, that's a terrible thing.

-- END --
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Issue #203, 9/21/01 Editorial: Fateful Decisions | After the Attacks: Drug Reformers Confront a Brave New World | Drug Prohibition and Political Violence: Making the Connections | Broad Coalition Forms to Defend Rights, Liberties in Wake of Attacks | Gov. Johnson Takes On DEA's Hutchinson in New Mexico Debate, Hutchinson Calls Student Loan Ban Unfair | Michigan: Rainbow Farm Marijuana Activists Laid to Rest, Friends Not Resting | British "Cannabis Cafe" Opens in Challenge to Marijuana Laws, is Raided Within Minutes | Action Alerts: Ecstasy Bill, HEA, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana, John Walters | Job Opportunity: Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, DC | The Reformer's Calendar
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