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The Case for Moderation and Rationality

By Claude Tower, Former Prisoner of the Drug War

The cracks are starting to show. Wherever I look in the print media (I have never been bored or decrepit enough to need a TV) voices of sense and reason are weighing in on drug policy. The syncopated political drumbeat of two decades is developing dissonance.

Going over the publications at the Laundromat which haven't been stolen (Yes, I'm out of prison and the halfway house now), which are opinion leaders like the Atlantic Monthly, I have begun to see a gathering concentration of think pieces calling for everything from treatment for drug offenders to legalization.

A syndicated column by Joseph Califano, Jr., the former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the local newspaper in Eugene, Oregon is a recent example. Califano, now president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, calls our imprisonment of the chemically dependent "public policy crafted in the theater of the absurd." It's no longer surprising to find these challenges to the lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key establishment.

Along with doubt cast on the way we deal with the drug-involved, is a building body of assertions about China, with phrases like "potential military enemy." Our economy and culture are arranged to be at war with someone. The end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union was the occasion of a virulent attack on our own citizens, ostensibly in the name of "crime reduction." I predict that the increasing demonization of China will have their hounds braying off on a fresh track not too long from now and pro-privacy initiatives will gain momentum. An enemy, and enemy she will be, a much more bountiful source of treasury supported countermeasures than all the heads in America, however hatefully they have been painted.

And hateful is all you can call it. Politicians camouflage the failure of their costly punishment-only, prison policy by snorting tough rhetoric. They talk and act as if the only people in prison are violent crack addicts and incorrigible psychopaths; people who treatment would fail on. According to many politicians, addiction is a moral failing that anyone can easily change.

As a member of the recovery community, I know it isn't so. Recovery is complicated, baffling, and difficult. No amount of punishment ever cleaned up a single addict or sobered up a single drunk. Our pack-em-off-to-prison policy on drugs is just changing the faces on the street corner, then adding the old ones back in, after a while. It is a great relief to hear, at last, these voices of sense and reason.

We can still approach the issue of drug use with tolerance and understanding, or with hatred and repression. Our leaders and many among us have chosen the latter, less sensible options. "Zero Tolerance" means absolute intolerance. We have to wonder how that awful expression became part of policy in a democracy. The admirable traditions of America have been tolerance and understanding for the afflicted. Our task is to reassert these values and keep them before the public consciousness.

We must bring drug policies which treat our citizens with compassion and common sense into being. This means those with drug problems. Our misbegotten rigid policies have had dramatic impact on people far removed from the drug scene; every citizen's rights have been steeply eroded.

Remember that our culture has had rounds of blame-the-victim hysteria many times before. The sex laws of the early twentieth century and race laws of recent times come readily to mind.

We now have a generation of leaders who are harshly intolerant of any deviations from the usual and viciously opposed to all the democratic institutions and values that preceded them. If they continue to have their way, well-balanced approaches to social problems will become extinct. Moderation and rationality will disappear. It is crucial that we succeed with our support of sensible and humane solutions or our future will continue to become more and more disparate from our past, and less and less pleasant.

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