A Long-Overdue Indictment of a Lunatic National Policy

Review by Thomas J. O'Connell, MD

America's War on Drugs, declared originally by Richard Nixon and waged with varying degrees of enthusiasm by every President since, has become a nearly invulnerable monster, thriving on its own failures and seemingly capable of destroying anyone reckless enough to speak out against it. Its simplistic central premise- drugs pose unthinkable dangers to our children, and therefore must be prohibited- has helped elect legions of politicians who then cite the latest drug scare as reason for tougher crack-downs, harsher laws, and more prisons. So completely has this idea of "illicit drugs" become society's default setting, and so beholden are politicians and others to it, the policy itself receives no critical scrutiny from government and little from academics dependent of federal funding. "Legalization" is a deadly brickbat hurled indiscriminately at all critics without thought that in a society based on capitalism, it is the illegal markets which are abnormal.

Although several scholarly, historically accurate books have pointed out shortcomings of this policy since the late Sixties, not one author has effectively attacked drug prohibition as a policy based on a completely false premise, incapable of preventing substance abuse problems; indeed, certain to make them worse. None, that is, until Mike Gray. A professional from the film world, Gray may have written the book no one else has yet been able to: a concise, readable, historically accurate, and well documented indictment of our drug policy. Very few reading his book all the way through will see the drug war the same way they did before. A major question then becomes: how many people will read it? Will it sink without a trace, overlooked like so many earlier criticisms of official policy- or will it be discovered by a public growing increasingly disillusioned by a perennial policy failure which is jamming prisons, impoverishing schools and colleges and effectively canceling! many Constitutional guarantees of personal freedom? Read by enough people, "Drug Crazy" could do for drug reform what "Silent Spring" did for the environment in 1962.

Like the film maker he is, Gray opens with a tight close up: Chicago police on a drug stake-out. The view quickly expands to the futility of enforcement against Chicago's massive illegal market. first from the perspectives of an elite narcotics detective and then through the eyes of a dedicated public defender. A comparison with Chicago seventy years ago during Prohibition reveals that police and the courts were equally unable to suppress the illegal liquor industry for exactly the same reasons: the overwhelming size and wealth of the criminal market created by prohibition. This beginning leaves the reader intrigued and eager to learn more; he's not disappointed.

The rest of the book traces the history of our drug crusade from its idealistic populist origins, starting in 1901 when McKinley's assassination thrust a youthful TR into the White House. The 1914 Harrison Act, purportedly a regulatory and tax law, was transformed by enforcement practice into federal drug prohibition with the assistance of the Supreme Court. Drug prohibition not only survived the demise of Prohibition, but emerged with its bogus mandate strengthened.

Thirty years of determined and unscrupulous management by Harry Anslinger, the J. Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics shaped drug prohibition into what would eventually become a punitive global policy. Anslinger was dismissed by JFK in 1960, but not before politicians had discovered the power of the drug menace to garner both votes and media attention.

Illegal drug markets have since thrived on the free advertising of their products which inevitably accompanies intense press coverage of the futile suppression effort and dire official warnings over the latest drug scare. This expansion was accelerated when Nixon declared the drug war in 1972. Gray covers that expansion beyond our borders in Colombia ("River of Money"), in Mexico (Montezuma's Revenge"), and also at home ("Reefer Madness"). He also describes how some European countries have blunted the most destructive effects of our policy forced on them by the UN Single Convention Treaty ("Lessons from the Old Country").

In his final chapter, Gray opines that the push to legitimize marijuana for medical use may have exposed a chink in the heretofore impregnable armor of drug prohibition. Beyond that, he believes that the policy, having thrived on relentless intensification, can't allow relaxation without risking the sort of scrutiny which might reveal its intrinsic lack of substance, therefore, any change must come from outside government. He doesn't offer a detailed recipe for a regulatory policy to replace drug prohibition; rather he suggests that it will be very similar to that which replaced alcohol Prohibition after Repeal in 1933- a collection of state based programs, sensitive to local needs and beliefs.

There is a desperate need for this book to be read and discussed by hundreds of thousands of thinking citizens. The pied piper of drug prohibition has beguiled our politicians and led us dangerously close to the edge of an abyss. Mike Gray's warning has hopefully come just in time and could itself be a major factor in initiating needed change of direction toward sanity.

Thomas J. O'Connell, MD,
DrugSense Director

Updated: 8 Apr 2005 | Accessed: 12899 times