DRCNet Book Review: "The New Prohibition: Voices of Dissent Challenge the Drug War," edited by Sheriff Bill Masters (Accurate Press, $14.95 PB) 7/30/04

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Phillip S. Smith, Editor, [email protected], 7/30/04

"The New Prohibition" is a rousing attack on prohibitionist orthodoxy from a strong line-up of lawmen, elected officials, academics, and activists. In 21 easily digestible chapters organized into five sections (voices from law enforcement, elected officials, drug war harms, responding to prohibitionists, and strategies for reform), "The New Prohibition" provides a wide-ranging, generally libertarian-leaning refutation of the moral, philosophical, and pragmatic justifications for a policy that has cost half a trillion dollars in the past three decades while failing to achieve its avowed goals and sowing all sorts of unintended consequences.


The voices of law enforcement are particularly powerful. Given the almost universal police cheerleading for ever harsher drug policies, any voice of dissent from the ranks would be powerful. But San Miguel County, Colorado, Sheriff Bill Masters, former Kansas City and San Jose chief of police Joe McNamara, former Graham County, Arizona, Sheriff Richard Mack, and former New Jersey undercover narc and current leader of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (http://www.leap.cc) Jack Cole make contributions that are both cogent and sometimes surprisingly radical.

Cole, for instance, says straight out that all drugs should be legalized, that the government should distribute them, and that maintenance doses should be given away free to addicts. McNamara, meanwhile, scathingly portrays a police culture riven with abuses and corruption by the drug war, while Masters, in his folksy way, demolishes the rationale for prohibition in a handful of pages.

Chapter after chapter in "The New Prohibition" is informed with a searing sense of the injustices done in the name of prohibition, much of it based on the libertarian notion that people should have control over their own bodies. It is a sad commentary on the times that mentioning limited government or the Constitution will undoubtedly be seen by some as crankish ravings of the lunatic right. In a fascinating piece, Colorado libertarian Ari Armstrong portrays the efforts by the Bush administration to spiff up its tired "war on drugs" by connecting it with the shiny, new "war on terror," most famously in the much ridiculed Superbowl 2003 "smoke a joint, help terrorists" ads. In short order, Armstrong demolishes the logic behind such ads.

Mike Krause and Dave Kopel of the libertarian Independence Institute analyze the effects of US drug policy in Latin America, correctly observing that prohibition fills the coffers of various armed movements, these days in Columbia, but also in Peru in the 1980s. In what is apparently an attempt to appeal to the dominance of "terror" in our political discussions, Krause and Kopel refer to the leftist FARC guerrillas and the rightist paramilitaries in Columbia as "narco-terrorists" -- an ill-chosen term, despite the occasional atrocities of the FARC and the rampant atrocities of the paramilitary groups, and the reliance to some extent of both on drug trade revenues. In particular, Colombian and US officials use the "terrorist" label against the FARC to make it easier to dismiss the myriad calls from within and without Colombia for peace negotiations and ending the drug war.

That quibble aside, Krause and Kopel are correct in their basic point: Drug prohibition helps finance political violence. And as is the case in Columbia, drug money knows no ideology. Something similar is going on right now in Afghanistan, where profits from the country's massive opium crop help finance both the Taliban-Al Qaeda alliance and the warlords they are fighting.

At least two contributors, the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts' Fatema Gunja and University of Colorado philosopher Michael Huemer, attempt to address what in this reviewer's opinion is the primary obstacle to drug reform: the widely held, often religiously based, notion that drug use is somehow immoral or just plain wrong. Gunja identifies a "discourse of righteousness" that has guided drug policy for generations, though she spends less time confronting the moral objection to drug use than she does outlining some of the ways that discourse has led to great social harms.

Neither is Huemer's effort completely satisfying. While his essay shreds the philosophical underpinnings of prohibition and while he cites moralist criminologist James Q. Wilson, he does not directly confront Wilson's claims that drug use is immoral, destroys one's humanity, alters one's soul, and corrodes one's sense of sympathy and duty. Instead, Huemer retorts only that Wilson's claims are unproven. The issue of the immorality of drug use is central to both the maintenance of prohibition and the fear and loathing with which vast portions of the population view any effort at reform. This is a challenge the reform community must face head-on. Still, both Gunja and Huemer are to be congratulated with at least confronting this critical issue.

There is not room in a book review to mention all the contributors, let only discuss the merits of their work. But let me mention a few more. The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation's Eric Sterling's address to businessmen about how prohibition hurts them is a marvel of pragmatism with not a word about social justice or natural rights, but with a keen-eyed emphasis on what for the businessman is the ultimate bottom line -- the bottom line. Boston University economist Jeffrey Miron provides a fascinating comparison of libertarian and liberal (I would have preferred "progressive") drug reform positions and where the twain might meet.

Similarly outstanding are contributions from former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Colorado US Senior District Court Judge John Kane, and libertarian Republican Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX), preceded by an introduction by none other than former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura. The chapter by Ron Crickenberger, the former policy director for the Libertarian Party who died last fall, is yet another testimonial to his life's work of ending the drug war. Among other things, he describes his civil disobedience arrest at the Justice Department in June 2002 to protest Attorney General John Ashcroft's medieval medical marijuana policy. I was at the corner of 9th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW that day. That's how I like to remember Ron, and thank to "The New Prohibition," that's how readers will remember him. The book, in fact, is dedicated to Ron's memory.

The astute reader may have noticed a Rocky Mountain flavor to this compendium. That's not such a surprise in a volume edited by the sheriff in Telluride with assistance from Colorado libertarian stalwart Ari Armstrong. With at least six contributors from Colorado alone and one each from neighboring Utah and Arizona, some may suggest the focus on regional talent weakens the book, but after reading their contributions I would beg to differ. Instead, it makes me think that if our movement can produce such talented voices in a small-population state like Colorado, there must be other, equally talented voices in states across the land.

For veteran reformers, the arguments in "The New Prohibition" are not, for the most part, new, but they are freshly and eloquently stated. The book provides argument after argument against prohibition and is chock full of handy facts for winning your own arguments or, better yet, winning over that cop or teacher or politician. "The New Prohibition" is a worthy addition to the reformer's bookshelf.

I cannot end this review with mentioning the contribution of DRCNet executive director Dave Borden. In his essay, Borden describes the range of organizations and positions within the drug reform movement, tells about how the frankly anti-prohibitionist DRCNet is able to work with other groups on select mainstream issues despite being "legalizers," and urges the rest of the reform movement to rethink the conventional wisdom that has caused "not quite legalization" to become a default approach many organizations and individuals involved with drug reform feel they must take. You tell 'em, Brother Dave.

DRCNet continues to offer New Prohibition along with a range of other member premiums for people contributing $25 or more to our organization. Visit http://stopthedrugwar.org/donate/ to make your donation and order your copy of New Prohibition and/or additional items from our selection of books, videos, and StoptheDrugWar.org merchandise.

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Issue #348, 7/30/04 Editorial: Too Many Questions | An All-Time High: Nearly 7 Million Behind Bars or on Probation or Parole | MPP, ACLU Sue Nevada to Gain Ballot Access for Marijuana Initiative | DRCNet Book Review: "The New Prohibition: Voices of Dissent Challenge the Drug War," edited by Sheriff Bill Masters (Accurate Press, $14.95 PB) | Newsbrief: British Drug Panel Considering Anti-Drug Vaccinations for Schoolchildren | Newsbrief: Border Guard Charged in Beating of Suspected Marijuana Smuggler | Newsbrief: Justice Department Orders Libraries to Return Asset Forfeiture Documents | Newsbrief: Despite High Court Ruling, Old Drug Conviction Keeps Man from His Kids | Newsbrief: West Australia Quietly Shifts From Drug Arrests to Diversion | Newsbrief: British Marijuana Arrests Plummet Following Legal Reclassification | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | This Week in History | Media Scan: Canada, Canada, Canada, Kerry | The Reformer's Calendar
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