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March 14, 2007 - Sacramento Bee (CA)

Column: Can We End Harry Anslinger's Costly Legacy?

By Peter Schrag

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Last week, as President Bush was touring South America, there was another story about the failure of our $4 billion program to eradicate Colombia's coca crop. Yet even as U.S. ports, refineries and chemical plants remain famously vulnerable to attack, and as Afghanistan produces record amounts of opium, the feds continue to bust up little California marijuana dispensaries and try to send the marijuanistas to prison.

It's obvious that the war on drugs, our longest war, is another war we're not winning. It's gone on for 75 years and, like the war on terror, it's been pursued with fatally counterproductive strategies. If Washington doesn't alter course, it could last forever. There's now a chance, albeit slim, that things could change.

The WOD costs billions in police time and other enforcement expenses; it's destructive of lives, health and families, spawns gang wars that corrupt whole governments, probably kills as many people as the drugs and helps crowd our overstuffed prisons. A lot of Europeans, who pursue nonpunitive harm reduction strategies -- needle exchanges, emphasis on treatment, controlled dispensing by prescription -- think we're nuts. So have conservatives such as Milton Friedman.

For those who hate self-serving bureaucracies, the war on drugs is a prime example of how, despite a lack of success, government programs continue in their reflexive ways: The more they fail, the bigger they get. The rationale changes, but everything else continues.

Honors as the godfather of WOD probably belong to Harry J. Anslinger, America's first drug czar (1931-62). As author of articles such as "Marijuana -- Assassin of Youth," which linked "marijuana fiends" with "murder (and) degenerate sex attacks," and retailer of countless horror stories (with the help of the eager Hearst papers, which needed a good menace), Anslinger was our biggest pusher of marijuana prohibition. The 1936 movie "Reefer Madness," later a cult classic, used a lot of Anslinger's tales.

By now, few people make the claims Anslinger made. And instead of the few hundred marijuana users that Anslinger warned about in congressional testimony in 1937 there now are 12 million (70 million have used it). But the system still behaves in the same knee-jerk fashion.

And of course, whenever one drug wanes, another comes along as the threat of the year: from reefer madness to heroin, to cocaine, PCP and meth. A lot is bad stuff, but when the feds take a drug that many Americans have used without harm and list it with the worst of them, the credibility of the whole thing begins to wane.

Recently, Johnny Walters, the Bush administration's drug czar, warned that while marijuana use among young Americans was down, the abuse of prescription drugs was sharply up. Now the stuff comes not from street pushers, he said, but from friends and from the family medicine cabinet.

Still, something seems to be changing. In 1996, Californian voters authorized the medical use of marijuana, followed by a parade of other states. In 2000, Californians also passed Proposition 36, which partially decriminalized the use and possession of small amounts of all other drugs for those willing to enter treatment.

Some states (including California) also authorized or liberalized needle exchange programs; some ended or modified asset forfeiture programs that had directly benefited the police agencies that seized the goods.

Meanwhile, polls show that a large percentage of Americans have come to understand that for certain classes of patients smoking marijuana is the most effective way of relieving the pain and other severe symptoms of AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and a range of other diseases and the loss of appetite and nausea caused by the remedies used to treat them. Some 75 percent of Americans believe the drug war is a failure.

Now there are also signs that the new Congress, though unlikely to soon roll back the longer sentences and other punitive laws passed by its predecessors, isn't disposed to pass more.

There's even a chance that it may begin to exercise some oversight over the zealotry of the drug cops.

In a forthcoming article, Bill Piper, director of national affairs of the Drug Policy Alliance, a drug liberalization group partially funded by financier George Soros, points out that key members in both houses are backers of drug war reform and/or supporters of legislation that would bar the feds from cracking down on medical marijuana in the states that have legalized it.

Among them: Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who heads the House committee that has oversight over Walters' office; Rep. David Obey, D-Wisconsin, chair of the House Operations Committee; Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois; and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, whose own state twice voted to approve medical marijuana.

Courage is scarce, so don't expect too much, certainly not before 2008. But as the damage and failures of the drug war continue to accumulate, and as more information is published about marijuana's positive medicinal effects -- as in a report last month from San Francisco General Hospital -- the worst of Anslinger's legacy may finally end.

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