Editorial: Op-ed: Contrasting views on the new "moderates", from the Associate and Executive Directors of DRCNet! 9/5/97

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DRCNet's Adam J. Smith offers some thoughts on the new "middle-ground" initiative; then David Borden provides a different viewpoint, though a compatible one.


    This week, a group of staid professionals from the worlds of academia, law enforcement, drug treatment, science and politics got together and made like radicals. They released, amidst fanfare and self-congratulations befitting such a revolutionary act, a report -- a manifesto of sorts - - declaring fourteen "Principles for practical drug policies." The report proclaims itself a "third way," a moderate position supposedly drowned out by the politics, hostility, and mutual recriminations of the debate between the zero- tolerance lobby and the "legalizers." Admittedly, the group conveniently ignores the fact that many of the signatories already get lots of media coverage for their "drowned-out" views. And they practice the very stereotyping they preach against by dismissing the entire reform movement as "legalizers" without so much as defining the term. And their true motives may very well be to squelch the growing voice of "radical" reform in favor of their own. But knowingly or not, in a climate of unquestioned loyalty to the Drug War State, they are most definitely talkin' revolution.

    Now, if you read their report, full of measured, humanistic language and cloaked as it is in disclaimers such as "we cannot escape our current predicament by 'ending prohibition' or 'legalizing drugs,'" you might very well miss the larger picture. That is, that moderation is the mortal enemy of rabidity. And it is this very contrast, the irreconcilable differences between these principles and our current policies, which expose the Drug Warrior philosophy for the extremism that it is.

    For example, #3) minimizing overall damage: "Drug control policies should be designed to minimize the damage done to individuals, to social institutions, and to the public health by a) licit and illicit drug taking, b) drug trafficking, and c) the drug control measures themselves." Sounds fairly reasonable, no? Well, not if you live in New Jersey, or any of the other states where needle exchange is still prohibited. In those states, individual injection drug users are subjected by that policy to tremendously increased risk of AIDS and hepatitis, social institutions bear the brunt of increased health care and social service costs, and the public health suffers by the transmission of these pathogens outside of the at-risk population.

    Or take a look at #4) forms of damage: "The forms of damage to be minimized -- whether caused by drugs or drug control measures -- include illness and accidents (needle exchange?), crimes against person and property (effects of a black market?), corruption and disorder (corruption? Hmm...), disruption of family and other human relationships ("educating" children to turn in their parents and friends), loss of educational and economic opportunities (drug testing for student loans? Drivers' licenses? Employment?), loss of dignity and autonomy ("profile" searches? Seizure of property based on mere suspicion?), loss of personal liberty and privacy (search warrants based on confidential "tips"? Expanded surveillance powers?), interference in pain management and other aspects of the practice of medicine (medical marijuana? the DEA's war on pain doctors?), and the costs of public and private interventions" (foreign interdiction?).

    The principles also mention truth in prevention efforts (DARE and other "drug education" programs), the injustice and imprudence of disproportionate punishments as an expression of social norms (mandatory sentences, "message to our children") and the acceptance of interventions which do not necessarily produce "immediate complete and lasting abstinence" (methadone maintenance? Opiate maintenance?).

    It would be easy, almost natural at first glance to take this esteemed group at its word. These are simply "moderate" guidelines for the development of a "practical" drug policy. It is not until one holds them up against the tenets of the War that one begins to see the problem. We who favor the reform of our drug policies may not agree with every word in this document, but we would be very happy to begin to discuss ending mandatory minimum sentences, legitimizing needle exchange, reigning in the state's expanding powers of search and seizure, replacing hyperbole with honest, fact-based drug education, insuring the availability of adequate pain medication for those in need, allowing doctors and patients to consider alternative medications such as marijuana, and sending the message to our children that not every social problem can be solved with the blunt instruments of law enforcement and military hardware. But although they may pay lip service, the bet here is that the drug warriors will want no part of these principles. Because "moderation" is always at odds with extremism. And because these "moderates" are a lot closer to us than to them.

    Adam J. Smith
    Associate Director, DRCNet


    I am in agreement with much of what Adam has to say. Certainly, these people have the right to profess their viewpoint, as we do ours, and their views should be heard. Discussion of a broad range of alternatives is part of a healthy debate, hence is likely to help us in the end. And their statement of principles contains a good deal of positive thinking, as Adam has described. However, I'm not willing to let these particular "middle-grounders" off the hook quite so easily...

    Four or so years ago, another group of staid professionals proffered a statement of principles. This statement, known as the Resolution for a Federal Commission on Drug Policy (sometimes incorrectly called the Hoover Resolution), made many of the same points that the new statement makes, and called for a blue-ribbon commission to conduct a thorough review of the evidence on drug policy, down to its core, and formulate recommendations for a new approach based on that evidence. (You can read the Resolution and its list of original signers in our rapid response archives at http://drcnet.org/rapid/1993/12-14-1.html -- one of DRCNet's first bulletins.)

    The fundamental difference between the two statements is that the Resolution for a Federal Commission on Drug Policy calls for an objective review of the evidence and of all the options -- put the cards on the table and let the chips fall where they may -- while the middle-grounders' statement calls on Americans to think about new drug policy options, but to first specifically exclude legalization from the discussion.

    Legalization is in reality a broad spectrum of alternative structures for dealing with drugs in a non-criminal environment. This group is apparently not willing to let the chips fall wherever the evidence sends them, but wants to rule out a large portion of the range of possible answers in advance. Intellectually this is non-objective and problematic.

    And judging from their press release (online at http://www.fas.org/drugs/drugspr.htm) some of the more vocal members of the group don't seem to truly understand the views of people on our side of the fence, or else are playing political games. For example, Jonathan Caulkins, Professor of Public Affairs at Carnegie-Mellon University, was quoted, "Drug hawks construe opposition to long mandatory minimum sentences as opposition to all drug enforcement. Drug legalizers construe it as support for their cause. Neither side seems to allow that someone could favor modifying -- NOT eliminating -- the basic framework of the current drug laws by allowing sentences to be set on a case by case basis rather than reducing them to a formula driven largely by the quantity possessed."

    I can't speak for the drug warriors, but I don't construe opposition to mandatory minimums as necessarily equivalent to support for repealing prohibition. I also know most of the prominent anti-prohibitionist activists in this country, and they don't either. Would Dr. Caulkins like to name some leaders in the anti-prohibition camp side who hold this patently illogical view that he ascribes to us? I don't think he can. We at DRCNet certainly feel an affinity with anyone who wants to make drug policy kinder, including the sentencing reformers; but that doesn't mean we construe their views as automatically equivalent to ours.

    It should be stated here that we don't view all "middle ground" reformers as adversaries, and in fact tend to see them as allies. For example, Dr. Caulkins was the lead researcher in the RAND mandatory minimums study which we praised effusively in the latest issue of The Activist Guide (http://www.drcnet.org/guide8-97/rand.html). In fact, some DRCNet members and supporters fall into the same category as this group politically. The difference is that they see value in a full discussion of drug policy alternatives, including legalization scenarios, while this particular group was formed to specifically discourage discussion of legalization and instead advocate the truncated discussion that would be left. Despite the group's claim that their middle ground isn't being heard, it is precisely this truncated debate that has dominated the political scene for the past several decades, until very recently.

    Lastly, does this group truly represent the middle ground? Politically, to be sure, they do. Intellectually, however, that is less clear. Though they recognize the harms of prohibition and oppose its greatest excesses, they still advocate that, at least on some level, armed agents of the state be deployed in our communities to control the drug-taking aspect of human behavior with coercion and sometimes violence. Whereas we at DRCNet are against drug abuse too, but think it's time to put the guns down and deal with the problem in some more civilized way. That's the real middle ground, as I see it.

    David Borden
    Executive Director, DRCNet

-- END --
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Issue #10, 9/5/97 International News: Britain, Costa Rica, Netherlands, Amazon | Death Threats: Cartels threatening US officials? | Publishing News: Ex-CIA drug runner signs with Doubleday Books to tell all. (And of course, sells the movie rights!) | Medical Marijuana: New Mexico Board says "Tell it to the Feds" as Journey for Justice II Readies to Hit the Road | The Activist Guide: New issue of DRCNet's newsletter -- hot off the press! | Calendar Updates: Exciting event listings that have come in since our last calendar distribution | Protests in Washington! Activists from various drug policy causes take it to the front line | "A Third Way:" A group of moderates issue "Principles for a Practical Drug Policy" | Link of the Week: Kemba's Nightmare | Quote of the Week: This guy's running for sheriff? Bob Marley should've moved to Mendocino County | Editorial: Op-ed: Contrasting views on the new moderates, from the Associate and Executive Directors of DRCNet!

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