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DRCNet Review Essay: Over the Transom -- Modern Day Pamphleteers Address the Drug War

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Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

"Demons, Discrimination, and Dollars: A Brief History of the Origins of American Drug Policy," by David Bearman (2005, Prosperity Press, $18.95 PB)

"The Definitive Answer to the War on Drugs," by Micah Charles (2005, Author House, $12.95 PB)

"The Beginning of Today: The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937," by Kenneth White (2004, Publish America, $9.00 PB)

"The Naked Truth About Drugs," by Daniel Williams (2004, Cronin House, $24.95 HB)

On the eve of American independence, the colonies were awash with wild-eyed radicals taking pen to hand to denounce the latest iniquities of the British crown. Tom Paine is perhaps the best known of those colonial rabble-rousers; his pamphlet "Common Sense" was a clarion call to rebellion against the injustices of colonial rule. But he was by no means alone; Paine, in fact, was representative of a hands-on, egalitarian impulse that appeared early in American society, an impulse that cried out "I have something to say and every right to be heard!"

More than two centuries later, that impulse is alive and well -- at least when it comes to the war on drugs. There is something about the issue that excites people to have their say. Other public policy issues seem to attract less outrage and fewer grassroots efforts to articulate a critique. Where, for example, are the hordes of self-published authors jumping into print with autodidactic tomes on the politics of waste water management or the epidemiology of mumps?

Perhaps it is because the drug war and drug prohibition feels so fundamentally wrong to so many American idealists. You know them: The people who actually believe all that stuff they told us when we were kids. The people who believe America is about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The people who believe America is -- or should be -- a shining beacon of freedom. The people whose attitudes toward government in general and drug prohibition in particular could be summed up by the famous coiled snake flag of the Revolutionary War: "Don't tread on me."

These days, would-be pamphleteers have other options. They can take to the Internet and blog away, as do folks like Peter Guither at Drug War Rant), Radley Balko at The Agitator, or Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast. (The latter two sites are broader than drug policy). Or they can become part of the new breed of movement journalists, like rebel radioman Dean Becker of the Drug Truth Network, Richard Cowan of Marijuana News, Preston Peet of Drug War.com, or yours truly with Drug War Chronicle. But there is something both extremely satisfying and quintessentially American in wanting to see one's impassioned ideas between the covers of a book. Here is what four of these contemporary Tom Paines are up to:

In "The Naked Truth About Drugs," author Daniel Williams provides an engaging, well-written account of various popular illicit substances and their prohibition histories. One part drug-taking memoir, one part pharmacological treatise, one part concise historical and cultural study, "The Naked Truth" provides an accessible point of entry to the debates over illegal drugs as well as solid suggestions for where we go from here. And Williams asks the key question: "Who benefits from the war on drugs?" "The Naked Truth" is an interesting, opinionated, and passionate effort, so much so that the author can be forgiven for using a nude photo of himself on the front cover.

"In the Beginning of Today," California attorney and law professor Kenneth White undertakes a detailed examination of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the founding act of federal pot prohibition in the US, and uses it as a lead-in to a discussion of ending the war on marijuana. With chapters on the run-up to the Tax Act, the politics surrounding the Act, and current US marijuana policy and its alternatives, White covers a lot of ground in this concise volume. While his discussion of the Tax Act is likely to prove slow reading for all but historians and legal scholars, White's discussion of where we go from here is succinct and well thought-out.

In "The Definitive Answer to the War on Drugs," Micah Charles lays out a legalization scheme that would doubtless win the approval of Bolivian President Evo Morales and countless Afghan opium farmers, as well as all those "marijuana as sacrament" people. Charles summarizes his argument in one sentence printed on the book's cover: "Give back to mankind their right to all plants and the drug war will dissolve itself." Charles' naturalistic approach, however, would leave synthetic drugs like amphetamines or plant alkaloids like cocaine and heroin illegal, leading one to ask whether he has indeed come up with "the definitive answer," but he at least takes the discussion to a new level.

In "Demons, Discrimination, and Dollars," long-time drug treatment specialist Dr. David Bearman examines the tangled cultural and historical roots of drug prohibition in the US and the Western world. This is a familiar story, but Bearman has a deft touch and makes the material feel new and refreshing as he takes us through witch hysteria, tales of crazed Negroes on cocaine, Reefer Madness, and scary "hippies on acid" propaganda. Bearman finds the roots of prohibition in racism and religious fears and addresses how those causes have been joined by the economic benefits prohibition brings for important social actors.

At the very end of his book, Bearman resorts to a tellingly All-American appeal to authority. He quotes Thomas Jefferson: "The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government," the founding father wrote. It is fitting indeed that this modern day pamphleteer bring the American story in all its glory and tragedy back to its beginnings.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
Looking for the easiest way to join the anti-drug war movement? You've found it!

and don't forget...

hey Dave, don't forget those 2 champions of newspaper opinion pages every where, MAP's LTE writers Robert Sharpe and Kirk Muse. Using newspapers as tools of dissident is purty traditional.

borden's picture

They have indeed done amazing

They have indeed done amazing stuff!

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