special to Drug War Chronicle by Steve BeitlerGeorge Orwell crafted many people's mental model of a police state: An iron fist ever ready to pound on the door, spies everywhere, resistance nearly futile. A different picture of a government gone amok emerged at a January 21 San Francisco panel cosponsored by Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org) titled "Got Rights? Drugs, Security and the Future of Freedom in America." Four featured speakers described an emerging world closer to Aldous Huxley's dystopian vision than Orwell's: the steady, often invisible erosion of legal rights and freedoms, the broadly growing power of law enforcement with technology in a key role, and many people genuinely cowed by their fears or enthusiastic about the purported trade-off of freedom for security.
The speakers focused on different aspects of a post-9-11 America where the Bush administration has succeeded, to a dispiriting degree, in linking drugs -- never prohibition -- with terrorism. The political, legal and emotional landscape the speakers described was complex and often bleak. They tempered this perspective with reminders of victories, recent and past, and with descriptions of urgent opportunities ahead in the ongoing battle to preserve democracy.
Dorothy M. Ehrlich, who heads the northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), believes America is becoming a "surveillance society" in which "we are putting the laws in place, the technology is getting more sophisticated, and we have racial and ethnic targets." The result is an increasingly blurry line between criminal investigations and efforts to thwart terrorism. Contributing to this blur are the PATRIOT Act and a series of executive orders that are the legal framework for outrages such as "sneak and peek," shorthand for the right of law enforcement people to rummage through a person's house and belongings without telling that person.
Ehrlich reminded the audience that the government's zeal for aggressive spying is not new; one example is the massive smear campaign against Martin Luther King, Jr. by the FBI from 1963 to 1968. The ACLU chapter in southern California recently launched a campaign to promote its proposed Safety and Freedom Ensured (SAFE) Act of 2003. The proposal, if made law, would impose curbs on "sneak and peek" and would reduce government access to many forms of personal data, such as bank records, Internet activity, bookstore purchases and library paper trails, that the PATRIOT Act permits.
In his State of the Union speech the night before the conference, President Bush had claimed solid accomplishment on the drug front and had announced his request for "an additional $23 million dollars for schools that want to use drug testing as a tool to save children's lives." Such drug testing is one way to socialize young people to relinquish their rights, said one panelist.
"Why are these people on a crusade about testing in our schools?" asked Judith K. Appel, DPA Deputy Director of Legal Affairs. One reason, she believes, is pragmatism. "They think it sells, and it does divert attention from the big-ticket spending in the drug war, such as in Colombia," she said. Beyond that, drug warriors like the socializing effect of early drug testing. "The war on drugs softens young people up for not having their rights later on," Appel said. She also cited drug testing in schools as an example of policy driven by profit and ignoring science. One of the benchmark measures of teen drug use, the Monitoring the Future surveys, which sampled 76,000 students nationwide in 8th, 10th and 12th grades, found no difference in the rate of drug use between schools that test and those that don't.
Gerald Uelmen, who teaches at Santa Clara University Law School, reported on the legal battle for medical marijuana. "Thank God for the Ninth Circuit," said Uelmen, referring to the Federal District Court that has delivered several key victories for patients and providers. Here Uelmen cited Conant vs. Walters, in which the court upheld a doctor's right to discuss all available treatments with his or her patients, and Raich vs. Ashcroft, which shielded two cannabis growers, who were clearly uninvolved in interstate commerce, from prosecution under the laws governing such commerce. "On the national level, the best way to protect our liberties would be to change the composition of the US Supreme Court," Uelmen said. "We need a Court that takes the Constitution seriously. The Fourth Amendment has barely survived the drug war, and it may not survive the war on terrorism."
For John Gilmore, computer entrepreneur and civil libertarian, the issue boils down to the "right to be anonymous." Gilmore, who said he doesn't carry a driver's license or other form of personal identification, recounted several cases of people who refused to show ID to the police and suffered for it. Gilmore joined this group when he was denied passage on airplanes at Oakland (California) and San Francisco airports last July 4th (http://freetotravel.org). As he deplored the "pervasive encroachment of the right to move around, and the right to be an ordinary person doing ordinary things," Gilmore noted that "there are other countries where things seem to be getting better and that seem more civilized than the US."
There are what look like greener pastures elsewhere, but those are not an option for the vast majority of US-based reformers, who have plenty to occupy them here at home. A recent example came on December 13, the day the world saw the first images of a just-captured Saddam Hussein. That day President Bush signed the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004. The new law, wrote Kim Zetter of Wired News, gives the FBI expanded powers to obtain records from financial institutions without needing a judge's permission. The law also broadens the definition of a financial institution to include travel agencies, real estate agents, jewelry stores, casinos and car dealerships.
It's hard to imagine an administration more hostile to drug reform than the Bush gang, and several people in the audience expressed support for regime change at home. Gilmore cautioned that "none of the Democratic candidates are speaking out about these horrible laws and policies." Indeed, with the possible exception of Dennis Kucinich's campaign, the Democratic candidates' offerings on drug policy seem grudging and unwilling to challenge the assumptions of the drug war. As the panel members expressed, and as almost-daily events make clear, the battle to preserve democracy will be long, difficult and uncertain.