Drug Crazy

Philip Nobile reviews 'Drug Crazy' by Mike Gray.

Published June 10, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

If religion is the opiate of the masses, drug prohibition is the high of the ruling classes. You do not have to be Stephen Jay Gould, an admitted therapeutic toker, to see the folly of criminalizing a citizen's association with plants, especially the kind bud -- cannabis indica, sativa and the hearty ruderalis (hemp). And yet President Clinton, a Rhodes scholar who joked on television about his youthful, offshore fling with Mary Jane, has juiced up Nixon's war against greens and crushed legitimate research into reefer's healing mercies.

America's century-long love affair with dope-busting is the subject of Mike Gray's engrossing "Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out." Gray is a Hollywood screenwriter and director with a jones for muckraking -- he co-authored "The China Syndrome" and produced a documentary titled "The Murder of Fred Hampton."

From the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act to the current blooming of medical marijuana in Arizona and California, Gray covers the usual historical landmarks with entertaining twists. Although he is indisposed to prohibition, his easy-to-read, fast-moving polemic has the feel of fairness. The true beauty of the book, the forest behind the trees, is its Voltaire-level refutation of the Church of Drug Enforcement. Gray seems particularly good at reporting the social and political context of destructive policy decisions. For example, a bogus 1909 cure for opium addiction prepared the way for the cruel Just-Say-Cold-Turkey attitude of our earliest narcotics laws. His chapters on the hemispheric quagmire created by exporting our drug war south of the border makes you want to burn Old Glory.

Gray sees an escape route running through Holland and Great Britain. Hamstrung by a United Nations treaty, the Dutch cannot easily legalize marijuana. But they have found a loophole -- tolerance. Small sales of weed are permitted in no-hassle coffee shops under government supervision. In theory, this keeps Dutch youth off the harder stuff by socializing the use of the non-addictive leaf. In practice, the trade-off appears to be working. Experimentation with heroin and cocaine has dropped steadily among Dutch teenagers while the marijuana-using population doubled between 1988 and 1992. The increase, of course, looks like red meat to the zero-tolerance crowd. But Gray points out that use by American teens likewise doubled in the same period, "despite the most repressive prohibition in history."

As for the cocaine- and heroin-afflicted, Gray describes the success of an old-fashioned, now heretical maintenance program in a Liverpool clinic where clients were dispensed their daily doses and expected to carry on with their lives. What happened? No HIV, high employment and a 94 percent fall in client crime. Naturally, the clinic was closed down. So how insane is the U.S. about drugs? Tobacco and alcohol are licensed to kill in the millions, but a few grams of gentle cannabis can land you in jail, forfeit your house and lose you your job -- unless you are Rep. Dan Burton's son (his stash included eight pounds and 30 plants) or play for the Dutch-oriented National Basketball Association.

By Philip Nobile

Philip Nobile is the author of "Intellectual Skywriting" and "The Perfect Fit." He is writing a book about Harry Truman and the end of World War II.

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