DOJ Study Takes Ominous Look at Drug and Drug Policy Web Sites 3/15/02

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The US Department of Justice is hard at work creating a strategy to defeat what it calls an Internet-based threat to American youth. In so doing, however, the department has monitored web sites of organizations devoted to drug policy advocacy and harm reduction policies, angering drug reformers and outraging civil libertarians.

In a study quietly released in December and first brought to light in Wired online, the Justice Department's National Drug Information Center (NDIC) provided an overview of the "threat that certain Internet web sites pose to adolescents and young adults in the United States." The study, "Drugs and the Internet: An Overview of the Threat to America's Youth," purported to focus on web sites that provide information designed to facilitate the production, use or sale of illicit non-prescription drugs, with particular emphasis on club drugs such as ecstasy. NDIC's sample of 52 web sites, however, included "32 sites [that were] probably associated with drug legalization groups."

Which drug reform groups made the NDIC list of threats remains unknown at press time, although the Media Awareness Project (http://www.mapinc.org), the online archive of drug policy news stories provided by Drugsense, was cited in one of the report's footnotes. NDIC spokesmen have not responded to a DRCNet request for that list. And according to Wired, the Justice Department rebuffed its three-week effort to elicit any comment.

Drug reform and harm reduction groups may have made the list because of overbroad criteria in NDIC's sample parameters. Among the sorts of information it included in its search of the web was such general information as descriptions of drugs, as well as studies and tests of drugs. Similarly, NDIC looked for web sites that offered information on physical and psychological effects of different drugs, their risks, and how to reduce them. It also looked for sites that "glamorized" drug use.

Despite the report's avowed emphasis on criminal drug activity on the Internet, of the 52 sites listed only "10 sites were probably associated with businesses" and only "6 sites contained information on MDMA, GHB, or LSD sales." Interestingly for a study of club drug information on the web, 13 of the 52 sites contained no information on club drug use, sales, or production.

Recognizing that surveilling individual Internet users is problematic for both technical and legal reasons -- it would require a subpoena or a search warrant -- NDIC noted that "individuals and groups that operate websites on their own registered domains often can be identified."

And it has certain types of "information purveyors" in mind for further attention. The individuals and groups who threaten American youth by providing them with drug information on the Internet include "drug offenders, drug culture advocates, advocates of an expanded freedom of expression, anarchist individuals and groups," and for good measure, "pornographers and pedophiles" who might use drug-related websites to prey on innocents.

But the report, following an endless line of drug war rhetoric, paints persons or groups who advocate more enlightened drug policies as "drug culture advocates." Such persons or groups "are chiefly interested in expanding the size of the community to both legitimize their activity and increase pressure on lawmakers to change or abolish drug control laws," said NDIC.

"We are not advocating for a drug culture by teaching harm reduction," said Donald Grove of the Harm Reduction Coalition (http://www.harmreduction.org), a nonprofit group seeking to reduce the negative consequences of drug use. "No, what we are promoting is common sense and life-saving measures," he told DRCNet. "We are less a threat to the youth of America than these people who would deny access to such information. Do we really think our children should die because they made a mistake or didn't listen to us?" he asked.

"Suddenly the law wants to define what we are allowed to think and say. That's a really dangerous situation," said Grove. "And anyway, what is wrong about talking about drug legalization? If it is legitimate to pass laws against drugs, it is equally legitimate to repeal them."

"This is an attempt at intimidation, an attempt to chill First Amendment rights," said Richard Glen Boire of the Center for Cognitive Liberties and Ethics (http://www.alchemind.org/CCLE/), an organization devoted to defending the mental freedom of individuals, including the right to alter their consciousness. "It encroaches upon cherished First Amendment rights in an area that is currently of great public importance and public debate," he told DRCNet. "This is an unsurprising, but very, very disturbing expansion of the war on drugs. It's as if they want to go after not just mind-altering substances, but the very words themselves," he said. The government seems to think that even discussing drug policy with any point of view other than theirs is somehow unpatriotic or encouraging illegal drug activity. That's a chilling prospect."

"We are outraged that they are tugging at the edges of our constitutional rights," said Clovis Thorn, special projects coordinator for Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org). "This is of concern. We believe that the web sites they are probably looking at, such as reform movement web sites, have information that reflects government data and the latest scientific research better than the Department of Justice or the DEA," he told DRCNet. "Other web sites are typically part of the emerging party health movement, rave-oriented websites that provide practical harm reduction information. This kind of information saves lives."

Drugsense's Mark Greer was less intimidated than amused by the NDIC report. "I think the drug reform movement can take this as something of a compliment," he told DRCNet. "We're kicking their butt all over the web. This is a panic reaction," he said. He encouraged Justice and the DEA to try to move to shut down such web sites. "Please," he said. "They will only box themselves into a corner if they try to do that."

Both Thorn and Grove told DRCNet that any efforts to move against web sites would only provoke a strong reaction. "The movement will come together behind the First Amendment to stop any government overreaching," said Thorn. "They will have to be challenged," said Grove, who warned that the feds will probably attempt to move against a particularly odious site. "It may be something we would like to repudiate, but will be forced to defend. We should be prepared for that," he said.

For Boire, it is not a direct First Amendment threat that he finds most disturbing. "If they monitor these web sites, they will see that for the drug reform and harm reduction organizations there is nothing there to prosecute," said Boire. "But this is a means of increasing the intimidation level -- we're watching you. That can scare a lot of people. In academia and other circles where we hope people will join the debate, there is great fear of someone peering over your shoulder, even if you are not engaged in illegal acts," he said. "This is a chilling and coercive move. The government ought to be looking at crimes where victims report them, not spending money monitoring groups that have views different from the government's."

DRCNet contacted NDIC this week and asked the following questions:

  • What are the web sites monitored by the NDIC for this study? If you will not make that list available, on what grounds do you withhold that information?
  • Is DRCNet one of the sites monitored by the NDIC?
  • If your study is examining websites that provide information on drug use, sales or production, why are 32 of those web sites associated with groups that advocate changes in drug policy?
  • Why are you monitoring constitutionally protected free speech?
  • Does NDIC make any distinction between "advocacy of drug culture" and advocacy of policy changes in the drug laws?
DRCNet has yet to receive any response to these queries, except for a denial from spokesman Chuck Miller that monitoring of web sites is ongoing. "We're not monitoring, this was just a one-time search looking at the Internet as a potential venue for the sale of illicit drugs," he told DRCNet.

But it will provide part of the basis of a new strategy to win the drug war on the Internet, and it is already pointing to suspicious characters who merit closer scrutiny.

If NDIC refuses to respond to DRCNet requests that it release the names of websites it monitored, the Week Online will file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in an attempt to obtain that information. But don't hold your breath. Attorney General John Ashcroft has instructed all government agencies that the Justice Department will bend over backwards to help ensure that FOIA requests are denied.

Visit http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,50550,00.html to read the Wired story.

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Issue #228, 3/15/02 Editorial: What Is It About Opium? | DRCNet Launching John W. Perry Scholarship Fund for Students Losing Aid Because of Drug Convictions at NYC Event on March 26 | Alert: Tell Congress to Repeal the HEA Drug Provision in Full | DOJ Study Takes Ominous Look at Drug and Drug Policy Web Sites | Britain Continues Brisk March to Drug Reform | Drug War Drives Federal Criminal Court Cases, No Let-Up Last Year | Sentencing Reform Passes in Washington State, Governor Will Sign Bill | Danish Politicians Seek Cannabis Crackdown in Christiania | Canadian Doctors Call for Marijuana Decriminalization, Treating Addiction as Medical Problem | US Drug Warriors Lose Again at UN | Government-Commissioned Study of White House Anti-Drug Ad Campaign Says $1.50 Billion Program Fails to Reduce Teen Use | Resources: New York Magazine, UN on Afghani Opium, US on Colombian Coca | Alerts: HEA, Bolivia, DEA Hemp Ban, SuperBowl Ad, Ecstasy Legislation, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana, Virginia | The Reformer's Calendar
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