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"A Drug Free America"

By Adam J. Smith, Associate Director DRCNet

In a recent issue of a small weekly newspaper in Marietta, Georgia, Newt Gingrich penned a piece titled "Our Goal: A Drug Free America by 2001." Get used to that phrase, we'll likely be hearing it quite a bit this fall. The piece itself spoke mostly of drug treatment, specifically, the superiority of private, religious-based treatment over secular, state-funded treatment. That is all well and good. We're all in favor of treatment, and Newt's preference for one type over another is irrelevant to the larger point. That point being that America will not, short of nuclear Armageddon, be anything close to "Drug Free" by 2001, or by 3001 for that matter.

The 1986 crime bill codified into law (in case you didn't believe them when they told you) that America would be "Drug Free" by 1995. Well, we're now more than halfway through 1997, and since that bill passed we have increased our prison population by over 40%, and we've more than doubled our spending on the Drug War. We've made thousands and thousands of "major" drug busts, and we've broken up more than our share of drug rings. We've made it easier for the government to seize private property and to tap private phones, and we've brought the military into the fray at unprecedented levels, (all the way onto our own soil, as a matter of fact.) We've invaded Panama and we've decertified Colombia, we've increased sentences across the board and we've created 3 strikes and your out. We've militarized local police forces, sent dogs into the schools, and we've bombarded our kids with so many Partnership for a "Drug Free America" ads that they probably get grossed out every time they eat an egg. So now we must ask, are we "Drug Free" yet?

Of course, there are some things that we haven't tried. Darryl Gates, when he was the Chief of Police in Los Angeles, proposed that casual drug users should be "taken out and shot." That would help. And I'll bet that the relapse rate would be even lower than for private, religious-based treatment programs. But would it make us "Drug Free"? In China, they execute "drug criminals." The Muslim countries are partial to public beheadings. How's that for making sure that drugs kill? (See <>.) And yet, those nations are not "Drug Free." Pat Buchanan would like to put up a wall between the US and Mexico. But there are certainly other routes into the country and besides, prisons have great big walls and there isn't a prison in this country that's "Drug Free."

And what exactly do they mean by "Drug Free"? We would imagine that they mean free of the "wrong" drugs. The ones that don't openly lavish lawmakers with money. But hey, no one can lavish like the tobacco cartels and tobacco is looking like it's getting mighty close to being "wrong." (That's the prison industry you hear salivating, by the way.) Alcohol had always been "right." And then in 1919 we proclaimed it "wrong." But that didn't work out too well. Even the "right" drugs have "wrong" uses. Ritalin is a godsend for parents of some hyperactive kids, but it's turning up more and more frequently on the streets. Ditto for lots of perfectly good pain killers and sleeping aids and other, more esoteric, albeit "legitimate" medicines. Will we be "Free" of them too? And what about household cleaners? And gasoline? And paint thinner? And air freshener?

The point is that a "Drug Free America" has no basis in reality. Altering consciousness is a very human trait. Ever watch a little kid spin around in circles? The only problem with altering one's consciousness is that it isn't free. There's a risk. That little kid will lose his lunch if he overindulges. So might his father whose alteration of choice comes in a highball glass. But dad might also lose his liver in the bargain. The benefit of alcohol's legality, if not its legitimacy, is that we can mitigate those risks, and we can make and enforce rational rules. We can insure that dad's gin isn't contaminated, we can regulate mom's dose of sleeping pills, we can educate our teens about the risks of drinking and driving, and since we know who sells the stuff, we have a reasonable chance to make sure it isn't sold to young children. We can tell our kids the differences between substances and their risks, and model use-behavior that is responsible, and we can be fairly comfortable that if we do, our kids will behave responsibly as well.

Marijuana, cocaine, opiates, hallucinogens, they all come with risks. And those risks aren't all the same. But the way we deal with them is. They are to disappear. They are not to exist. We are to be "Free" of them. And as sure as that proclamation is a denial of reality, it is also a denial of our own responsibility to teach and to learn how to live, not to die, with their very real presence. We cannot tell our young people that alcohol is a deadly mixture with certain of them, because that fails to embrace our fantasy of "Freedom." We cannot tell our young people how much is too much, because that too, ignores the mandate. So we tell them no, which is fine, because no is important. But no alone fails to address the fact that in an America, in a world, that will never be "Drug Free" some of them, sometimes, will say yes. And for those kids, at those times, our insistence on maintaining the fantasy will have put them at the mercy of the fates.

So now America will be "Drug Free" by 2001. Well that's swell. And I'll bet that Newt has a ton of brilliant, new, visionary ideas that he's just sure will get us there. Most likely they'll be very much like the ideas that made America "Drug Free" by 1995. And pardon me for spoiling the fun, but there are real people out here, young people and old people; rich people and poor people; brown people and white people; and everyone else. And buying these fantasies is costing us a chance to learn to live with reality. And more than likely, we're going to have to live with reality until long past 2001.

Adam J. Smith is a Boston University law school graduate with a degree in Urban Studies from the City University of New York at Queens College. Prior to law school, Adam spent over 10 years working with youth in New York City. "Working with teenagers proved to me that our drug policies were doing more harm to our kids than the drugs themselves. Escalating violence, distrust of the police (and authority in general), the lure of the black market, and an 'us vs. them' mentality are the primary results of what I call the 'culture of prohibition.' The sad fact is that it is this very culture that is used as an excuse to continue the escalation of the strategies which created the drug war in the first place."

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