"The drug war is a dismal failure"

Bill Maher calls for legalization, and says parents should drug-test their kids if they want to. A talk with the man who defines politically incorrect.

By Fred Branfman
Published August 18, 2000 7:51PM (EDT)

Bill Maher, host of the ABC show "Politically Incorrect," might be the most politically committed and articulate comedian since Dick Gregory. He is most passionate about campaign finance reform and ending the drug war, delivering major speeches on each subject at the Los Angeles Shadow Convention.

The passion swirling around the drug issue was the major surprise of the three-day Shadow Convention. The first day was devoted to reducing poverty, the third to campaign finance reform. But it was second day, devoted to calling for an end to the drug war, that created the most excitement.

Politicians like Jesse Jackson, Reps. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. and Maxine Waters, D-Calif., plus California Republican Rep. Tom Campbell spoke to a packed and emotional audience about the costs of the war in human terms.

But Maher may well be the nation's most visible proponent for ending the drug war. He makes his case primarily on libertarian grounds, arguing that government has no right to regulate what goes on "inside people's heads." But this libertarian also feels strongly that parents should actively restrict their children's ability to use drugs, even to the point of permitting mandatory drug-testing in the schools.

Salon caught up with Maher on the day after his Shadow Convention speech. The contrast between his high-decibel TV persona and his quieter intensity in a one-on-one interview was striking.

What are your main objections to the drug war?

Well, No. 1: It's a dismal failure. What's that definition of fanaticism? Redoubling your efforts when they're going in the wrong direction. That seems to be what's going on. Where do I begin? The tremendous hypocrisy of demonizing certain mind-altering substances, while protecting and profiting from others. Also, using the argument that something is not good for children, and then taking it away from adults. We certainly don't do that with cars, or fire, or liquor, or 1,000 other things. What ever happened with telling your kids "This isn't for you"?

When I was at the Shadow Convention, I mentioned the connection between the drug war and campaign finance. The Partnership For a Drug-Free America really isn't for a drug-free America. It's a lobbying arm for the liquor and prescription drug industries. It's for an America free of the drugs that are in competition with those that are being protected legally.

I assume you're for treatment instead of incarceration, medical marijuana, and eliminating minimum sentences. But would you also decriminalize marijuana, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, mushrooms, whatever?

Yes, I'm for the legalization of all drugs.

Including heroin?

Including heroin. Obviously, it's something you should only get with a prescription. I don't think it's something you should be able to buy on the street corner. But drugs are treated as a blanket evil, which is inherent in the term "drug war." That's our first problem, thinking of this as a war. Because a war is something that eventually is settled. Boom. And that's never going to happen. Drugs and the inclination of mankind to alter his consciousness, and to treat and medicate himself, is something that's been with us since the beginning of time and will never go away.

Why do you think pot is so attractive to so many people? What does it do for folks?

Well, if you're sick it's tremendously beneficent. It helps with appetite for cancer and AIDS patients, for people who can't get food down, people who don't have an appetite because of severe illness. It helps with glaucoma. I don't have any of these, but I know from people who do. My friend, Todd McCormack, who's in prison for medical marijuana, had cancer since he was a child. And marijuana is the only thing that eases his pain.

What about the average person? Why do so many people in our society like to take drugs? What is the attraction?

When I was in high school, one of my after-school jobs was for a liquor store. And I remember the owner of the liquor store used to say, "You know, we do good when times are bad, and we do good when times are good." Meaning you can use things to alleviate reality when things are bad, and you can use substances to heighten reality when things are good. The most interesting place you can ever travel is inside your own head. And if you've never even tried any drugs, then you're always staying home.

I don't recommend it to kids. I never even drank when I was in high school. And I think that's good, because you have to get used to reality before you start twisting it.

But for a government to step in and say to any of its citizens that what you do inside your own mind is illegal -- I can't think of a more private place than the inside of my head. And when they start messing with that, they are going against one of the basic ideas that this country is founded on, which is individual freedom and liberty.

In your speech you talked about mandatory drug-testing for kids. How far are you willing to go on that? Would you have schools regularly test kids?

I'm just saying the argument that I've heard so many times for keeping drugs illegal has to do with children, sometimes from parents as they're doing drugs themselves. And that's just not a fair argument. You worry about your kids, stop using citizens as cannon fodder in the drug war. Stop putting people in jail as the first line of defense against keeping drugs from reaching your kids. You take care of the problem.

And if that means that you have to drug-test your kids at home or in school or whatever, then go ahead. I don't really care about that. As far as I'm concerned, the way I was raised, until you're 18 and you leave the house you're not equal and you shouldn't be equal. You're a child. You're not just a smaller, shorter human being. You are a lesser human being. You don't know enough to make your decision.

That's why you have parents and why you're living at home with them. And they have every right to not treat you as an equal. We've lost control of our children in this country. We have coddled them and made them feel they're equal. But they're not. It's wrong to extend racism and sexism to this ageism notion, that we all are equal in opinion. We're not. The opinion of an 11-year-old doesn't count as much, and it shouldn't.

People said let Elián Gonzalez decide. How insane is that? That a 6-year-old would make life decisions like that. So I have no problem with drug-testing kids. A kid is your property as a parent, and you can do anything that you want with them except abuse them.

You don't like laws preventing people from smoking. But what about saying that if you want to smoke, fine, but you don't get to have health insurance because your smoking is costing the rest of us so much money and increased the cost of our health insurance?

If you start pointing the finger at unhealthy things we do, where do you stop? If we're going to cut off health insurance for the smokers, let's do it for the Twinkie-eaters too, because they are doing themselves harm as well. Let's cut it off for heavy drinkers. Everyone pretty much is doing something to themselves. That's just a condition of life. You can't get through it without incurring some wear and tear on yourself in an effort to get through it. So I think it's very, very harmful to society when we start pointing fingers at each other and say, "You know what, you're costing us." Because the truth is we're all doing something. Let's all be in this together.

You've said that because a few people abuse drugs, that's no reason to penalize the majority who use it responsibly. What is a responsible use of drugs? How many times a week, which drugs, etc.?

It's all individual. I'm a libertarian. A libertarian means somebody who believes you can do anything you want as long as it doesn't hurt somebody else. And that's really all there is to it. As long as it doesn't hurt anybody else. Obviously you can do that when you're driving under the influence of something. For example, I've never understood the drug cocaine. I never liked it. I never really did it. I tried it, but to me it's a drug that makes people edgy and mean and sort of desperate. So I don't know what people do on cocaine. My instinct is that if you do it long enough, you're probably not going to be in good shape. But again, you can't arrest people based on what they choose to do.

Do you support Nader, like Don Imus does?

No, I don't at this point.

A plague on both their houses?

I've never been "a plague on all their houses" kind of guy. I usually think there's a better choice. This year ... it's a tough one this year. I really don't like Bush. But Ralph Nader is kind of cuckoo on free trade and that whole issue. He's with Buchanan on that -- that should tell you something.

Fred Branfman

Fred Branfman can be reached at Fredbranfman@aol.com. His Web site is www.trulyalive.org.

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