Is Our Drug Policy Failing? Don’t Ask

March 29, 2000 in print edition B-7 Los Angeles Times

Recently, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, our nation’s “drug czar,” was invited to Orange County for a debate about drug policy. He said all he had time to do was give a speech and take a few questions.

My question was: Many people here in California feel that the federal government is closed-minded, even arrogant, in dealing with medical marijuana. Since Proposition 215, which allowed sick people to use marijuana as medicine if it was recommended to them by a doctor, passed by a large margin in this state, and similar measures have passed in four other states plus the District of Columbia, will you now do what you can to cause the federal government to allow the will of the voters in these states to prevail?

McCaffrey’s answer was, in essence, that since in his mind marijuana was not a medicine, the voters in all of these states could pound sand.

Our drug czar has now gone back to Washington. But there remain many other critical questions I want to ask him about our nation’s failed war on drugs:

  • Have you considered that the enormous problems in countries like Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Afghanistan are really not caused by drugs as such but by drug prohibition? That is to say, the problems come directly from the money obtained from the sale of these drugs. So couldn’t we use our intellect, strength and ingenuity to come up with some way of deprofitizing these drugs? This will probably not have any adverse effect upon the availability of these dangerous drugs, even to our children or even to people in prison, because under the present policy the drugs are already fully available. But if we could take the money out of the equation, we wouldn’t have to consider sending our nations’ troops and treasure down to these countries to fight these unwinnable wars.
  • Have you considered that since all neutral studies have shown overwhelmingly that programs of needle exchange for drug-addicted people, which allow a dirty needle and syringe to be exchanged for a clean one with no money changing hands and no questions asked, do not increase drug usage but do greatly reduce the transmission of the AIDS virus, hepatitis C, tuberculosis and other serious diseases both to the drug users as well as to their sexual partners and to the newborns of female drug users? Since these programs have been endorsed by organizations like the American Medical Assn., the Centers for Disease Control, the National Commission on AIDS and the General Accounting Office, as well as by the secretary of Health and Human Services, will the federal government now finally change laws that make these programs illegal?
  • Do you know what other countries around the world are doing about these problems? For example, are you aware that Switzerland, in an effort to reduce the harm caused by these dangerous drugs, has implemented pilot programs for drug maintenance in 15 of its cities? These programs allow addicted drug users to have access to low-cost pharmaceutical morphine, heroin and methadone, which can be injected under strict medical supervision in licensed medical clinics. The programs have been so successful in reducing crime in the neighborhoods surrounding the clinics and increasing the health and employment of the clients that more than 70% of the Swiss voters opposed an initiative that would have abolished them. Since reducing crime and increasing general health and employability of our people are good things, why have we not established similar pilot programs in our country?
  • Don’t you realize that our war on drugs is not working, and that our prohibitionist policies are significantly adding to our problems here in Southern California, as well as around the country and the world? Don’t you realize that just because some of us talk about changing our policy does not mean that we condone the use or abuse of these dangerous drugs?
  • Finally, since you control a federal budget that has just been increased from $17.8 billion last year to $19.2 billion this year, is asking people like you if we should continue with our nation’s current drug policy like a person asking a barber if one needs a haircut?

These are some of the questions I would have asked our country’s spokesperson for the status quo, if only he had had the time.