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Alarm Addictions

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

It was November 6, just after last fall’s election, and John Walters was crowing. Three ballot initiatives seeking to legalize or decriminalize marijuana in Arizona, Nevada and Ohio all went down in defeat. “These failed initiatives represent the high-water mark of the drug-legalization movement. Common sense has prevailed,” he declared.

Unlike his predecessor Barry McCaffrey, Walters — director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy — is not a military man. But this day, Walters sounded very much like a commander who seizes upon success in one skirmish to galvanize the troops: “From now on, the tide turns our way,” he said.

Walters’ enthusiasm was understandable. Until last November, most drug-decriminalization measures nationwide — 17 out of 19 — had passed by substantial margins. In 1996, the success of California’s medical-marijuana initiative took then-czar McCaffrey by surprise; while he wrote letters opposing the referendum, he kept his office out of direct campaigning. The collapse of this year’s ballot initiatives came after unprecedented intervention from Walters and DEA head Asa Hutchinson, who, with the support of the Bush White House, campaigned personally and poured advertising money into all three states. The campaign raised eyebrows from some election-law specialists — the decades-old Hatch Act forbids federal employees to campaign in state and municipal elections — but it had the desired result: pouring a bucket of cold water over drug-reform advocates who had been counting on a new decriminalization consensus emerging from those referendums.

But a turning of the tide in the war on drugs? In fact, recent developments suggest that Walters’ short-term victory rests on a very shaky foundation: In one arena after another, the drug war — and in particular the Bush administration’s strategy — seems both more bogged down in a quagmire and more unpopular than ever before.

Consider Texas, where, under former Governor Bush, a regional narcotics task-force system evolved into a $200 million arrest machine. In mid-December, the ACLU of Texas released a report documenting a grim pattern of racial profiling and large-scale corruption among the drug task forces. Nationally, journalists have covered a few of these scandals — most notoriously in the town of Tulia, where 10 percent of the community’s African-American residents were rounded up on the word of a corrupt informant. But the new ACLU report makes it clear that Tulia is far from an exception: African-Americans make up 12 percent of Texas’ population yet count for 70 percent of the nonviolent drug offenders in the state criminal-justice system. The ACLU report documents 24 major Texas drug scandals involving agents’ falsifying of evidence, lying under oath and other corrupt behavior. “People have lost their jobs, families have been broken up, and children have been virtually orphaned as a result of the massive racial profiling and corrupt practices of the task forces,” says Graham Boyd, director of the national ACLU’s drug-litigation project, who has given the Texas task forces relentless scrutiny.

Once upon a time, the ACLU’s Texas report would probably have fallen on deaf ears in a state long in love with a harsh law-and-order regime. But no more. Not only are cases of large-scale racial profiling like Tulia a national embarrassment but, equally compelling, Texas is facing a budget shortfall, and — as in states ranging from Connecticut to Oregon — legislators are taking a hard look at the cost of maintaining a prison system filled with low-level offenders, and creating limited amnesties to stem the hemorrhage of dollars.

 

If racial inequity and corruption are the drug war’s most evident long-term pathologies, there are also steadily ripening crises afflicting the Bush administration’s particular approach — an approach rooted not so much in law enforcement as in moralizing about declining culture. It’s a job to which drug czar Walters is particularly suited: He began as an aide to Bill Bennett, and in the mid-’80s co-authored a book with Bennett and political scientist John Dilulio that predicted — wrongly, it turned out — a coming “wolf pack” generation of amoral, crime-addicted youth. Walters brings the same fear of imminent social apocalypse to the drug office — one day urging baby-boom parents to lie to their children about their own adolescent marijuana use, the next mistreating doctors who prescribe marijuana for cancer or glaucoma, the next complaining that teenagers see the world as a “giant shopping mall.”

As a messenger, Walters is constantly caught in a whipsaw between alarmism and dubious claims of results. In September 2002, his office produced numbers showing teenage substance abuse up across the board. In December, another survey showed teen drug use down, which Walters claimed as a triumph for “when we work together and push back.” (Not coincidentally, Walters is fond of asserting that drug use went down in the ’80s and early ’90s but rose again in the Clinton years.)

It is, perhaps, this sense of America mired in ’60s relativism that explains the administration’s obsessive focus on marijuana, with Walters’ office producing reefer-madness scare ads describing marijuana as a gateway drug. But the trouble that Walters’ personal culture war — along with that of Attorney General Ashcroft — spells for sensible law enforcement is perhaps most visible in the administration’s campaign against raves. Beginning in New Orleans in 2001, federal drug agents set out to clamp down on the city’s rave scene by banning symbols of rave culture — glow sticks and the like. But in 2002, that strategy was brought to an abrupt halt by U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous, who ruled, “There is no conclusive evidence that eliminating the banned items has reduced the amount of Ecstasy use at raves.” Judge Porteous found that “the First Amendment right of Free Speech is violated by the Government in the name of the War on Drugs, and . . . that First Amendment violation is arguably not even helping in the War on Drugs.” Despite this rebuke, the federal DEA has since sent its agents to more than 30 cities to train local law enforcement in how to squeeze raves out of existence (a project urged not just by the White House but by Democratic Senator Joe Biden, outgoing majority leader of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on drugs, who has made shutting down raves a personal crusade).

Ironically, it’s a policy at direct odds with the Justice Department’s own advice, in a recently published advisory bulletin for community policing. In calm, measured tones, the Justice bulletin advises officers that raves represent little threat:

“As a whole, those ravers who use drugs seem to manage their drug use, not letting it disrupt other facets of their lives . . . Few rave-related users get seriously addicted to drugs and few turn to crime to finance their drug use . . . In some respects raves are safer places for young people, especially women, than conventional bars and clubs.”

The law of unintended consequences is plaguing another Bush administration project — the attempt to link the war on drugs with the war on terrorism. Walters and Ashcroft have repeatedly described Colombia’s drug-dealing Revolutionary Armed Forces as part of a global terrorist network — an assertion that has been derided publicly by Representative William Delahunt, ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee. At the same time, Walters’ office has produced a series of public-service ads linking casual marijuana use to terrorism, an even broader stretch.

The real consequences for drug policy of the war on terrorism were unexpectedly suggested to Walters in June 2002 during a visit to San Antonio. Walters was the celebrity guest at a luncheon intended to honor a local anti-drug coalition. Instead of another photo op, he found himself cornered by local activists alarmed at what the administration’s border- and drug-enforcement strictures were doing to their community. “With way more security along the borders because of the terrorist threat, the supply of drugs is also affected,” coalition director Beverly Watts Davis told Walters, as reported by the San Antonio Express News. “Gang violence is going up as drug dealers fight over the limited supply. And when we decrease the supply of drugs the price rises, and the people out there trying to get crack cocaine and heroin are stealing more . . . And the response from Washington is ‘Gosh, we never realized that.’”

Whatever the future of specific reform efforts, it’s clear that November’s referendum defeats did not “turn the tide” in the drug war. To the contrary. With states strapped for cash, with post–Trent Lott political awareness that racial inequity is still an issue with legs, with the contradictions and sheer unreality of the Bush administration’s drug policies ever more evident to law enforcement and the courts, John Walters will not lead his troops out of the quagmire anytime soon.


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