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March 21, 2008 - Seattle Post-Intelligencer (WA)

Travel Pro Steves To Challenge Futile U.S. Drug War

By Joel Connelly, P-I Columnist

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

AS HE TROOPS about Europe, with notebook and camera crew, guidebook author Rick Steves witnesses what the late historian Barbara Tuchman called "The March of Folly," the sites of wars and witch hunts waged by feckless rulers.

Steves has come home with a mind to take on our leaders' folly, the federal government's enduring, woefully unsuccessful War on Drugs, and the battle front against marijuana.

He would replace a strategy of locking people up with a policy designed to lessen harm. It's a lot like the "Four Pillars" approach to drug use adopted by Vancouver, B.C.: treatment, harm reduction, prevention and -- for profiteers of the business -- enforcement.

"I'm just tired of watching people embrace lies because they think it is dangerous to do otherwise," Steves explained.

The futility of the drug war, started by the Nixon administration, can be seen in sweeping statistics as well as individual cases of human hurt.

The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that 97.8 million Americans, age 12 and older, have used marijuana at least once. The ranks of semi-regular smokers total more than 25 million.

If 39.8 percent of those over 12 have taken a toke, the number of young people getting high is higher. The DEA says that totals 41.8 percent of 12th-graders -- 31.7 percent have smoked in the past year -- 46.9 percent of college students and 56.7 percent of young adults.

Can our drug warriors claim success given these figures?

Steves says officials abroad shake their head at the ham-handed tactics of America's drug bureaucracy. "Europe has had a 15-year track record dealing with drugs as a health problem, not a crime problem," he said.

Or drive 144 miles north and talk with Canadian Sen. Larry Campbell, a former police officer, coroner and Vancouver mayor. "They're still in 'Reefer Madness,' " Campbell said in an interview, referring to a laughable anti-drug movie of the 1930s.

The drug warriors' tactics, of late, have been to attack civil liberties and stomp on privacy.

An example is requiring random drug tests for those involved in high school athletics. In a case from tiny Wahkiakum County, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously last week against the school district's policy of pee-to-participate.

Bill Clinton quibbled, waffled and evaded the have-you-ever-smoked-pot question far into the 1992 campaign. He finally put the country in stitches with his "I didn't inhale" line.

But our first baby-boomer president signed a punitive law passed in 1995 by the Republican-controlled Congress. The law denies federal student loan assistance to convicted marijuana "offenders."

What's the effect? In 2006, 696,074 Americans were arrested for marijuana "offenses." Of this number, 88 percent were charged only with possession. The number charged with sale and/or manufacture totaled just over 90,000.

Hence, thousands of college students have been denied aid, and thousands of other worthy citizens endure petty penalties.

A friend of mine works summers for the National Park Service, and wants to make a career with the agency. He is a ) an Eagle Scout, b ) an Olympic Peninsula native, c ) a trained climbing guide and rescue technician who d ) has earned two master's degrees, and e ) presents research at scholarly gatherings on how to minimize human effects on fragile natural systems.

One step remains: He must take a law enforcement course. Because he took a toke on a joint two years ago -- and answered the question honestly -- the guy must wait an additional year to learn how to shoot straight.

The have-you-ever question has not intruded into the 2008 presidential campaign. A Hillary Clinton enforcer tried to gin up attention into Barack Obama's confession of youthful marijuana use, but was forced to leave the campaign.

Still, as Hendrik Hertzberg wrote recently in The New Yorker, neither Obama, Clinton nor John McCain seems willing to rescue the country "from the larger disgrace of the drug war -- the billions wasted, the millions harmed, the utter futility of it."

As usual, the initiative must come from the bottom up. As with global warming, Seattle is a test market for change.

It's appropriate. In 2003, Seattle voters adopted Initiative 75, making pot possession our city's lowest law enforcement priority. Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske cites, with a hint of pride, the low number of stand-alone marijuana smoking arrests.

The American Civil Liberties Union has put together a multimedia public education campaign, "Marijuana: It's Time for a Conversation," which includes a Web site (, a booklet and a 30-minute video. Steves is host.

Comcast is offering the video free to subscribers through its On Demand service. Comcast subscribers can watch the program by entering 888 on their cable remote, going to Community, and looking for the program.

It's a modest beginning. Steves jokes about hosting because a politician would run the risk of being "Swift-boated."

One hopes, however, that the ACLU will get bolder.

The marijuana front consumes $8 billion in taxpayer dollars each year. To what end? What does society gain from all those possession arrests?

Sensible Americans look out today and see a country that needs to be extracted from its failing wars.

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