Bush's reefer madness

Terrified that an increasingly pot-tolerant America will spell the end of their moral crusade, the president's anti-drug warriors are making a last stand over marijuana.

Published November 5, 2002 5:31PM (EST)

The new front in the nation's drug war came into sharp focus at 7 a.m. on Sept. 5, when loud shouts and stomping woke Valerie Corral at her home north of Santa Cruz, Calif. Suspecting that the intruders weren't ordinary burglars, she snuck out a back entrance and walked around to her front door to tell them to leave. When she opened the door, stunned federal agents in flak jackets trained M-16s on the 50-year-old homeowner. When she asked to see a search warrant, the officers screamed at her to get down. They pushed her to her knees, then forced her to lie face down on the floor. With her hands handcuffed behind her back, an officer pressed his rifle muzzle to the back of her head.

Valerie Corral tried explaining to the agents (there were about 30) that she and her husband, Michael, 53, ran Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana, a legal cooperative in California that has grown the drug for 250 terminally ill and sick patients, many with cancer or AIDS, for almost nine years. Twenty-two of their clients have died in the past 12 months -- but to the officers from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, that didn't matter. The DEA took Valerie, still in green silk pajamas, and Michael to a federal detention center in San Jose. Under the Federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug -- dangerous and with no possible medicinal value -- right up there with heroin. Not only did they uproot and seize 167 marijuana plants, but they also confiscated the co-op's patient list.

"We do not target drug users," insists Will Glaspy, a DEA spokesman in Washington. "We target drug traffickers. There is no such term as 'medical marijuana,' except as created by the marijuana lobby."

In California and other states -- including three that will feature marijuana initiatives on Tuesday's ballots -- the marijuana lobby happens to be the voters. Valerie, who smokes pot to control grand mal epileptic seizures, worked to legalize medicinal marijuana in Santa Cruz county in 1992. Four years later, she helped draft California's Proposition 215, which lets patients who have a doctor's recommendation grow and use marijuana. So, on Sept. 17, in defiance of President Bush, DEA chief Asa Hutchinson and drug czar John Walters, the Corrals along with Santa Cruz Mayor Christopher Krohn, most of the city council members and a county supervisor handed out pot to patients on the steps of city hall. And under state and local law, it was perfectly legal to do so.

"When you look down the barrel of a gun, it's frightening," Valerie says. "But when you face illness or death, the inhumane actions of the government pale."

In the last year, especially, the Bush administration has renewed the war on marijuana with a vengeance -- only this time, it is a war that pits the federal government against the majority of the American people, and sometimes against state and city officials and even local police officers. Headed by religious conservatives who take an absolutist stance against drugs, the Department of Justice, the DEA and the White House's Office of Drug Policy are using the might of the federal government and millions of dollars worth of advertising in an effort to roll back the public's growing acceptance of marijuana as a medicine and the desire to decriminalize possession of the drug in small amounts. Walters and his allies appear to realize that if they don't stop the acceptance of marijuana now, then the war on drugs as we know it will be forever altered.

The government's drug warriors have already lost ground. Since 1996, eight states have followed California's lead and passed laws allowing cannabis to be used for medicinal purposes with a physician's recommendation: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Tuesday, voters in Arizona and Nevada will decide whether to take steps to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug. Voters in Ohio will decide whether to allow treatment instead of jail time for some drug users. Even if these ballot initiatives fail, the mere fact that voters are considering them suggests that their ardor for the war on drugs is waning.

The federal government has been trying to outlaw cannabis since the '30s. In 1937, Harry Anslinger, the newly named commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, testified before Congress that "marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death." The American Medical Association opposed passage of the act and recommended that the drug's status as a medicine be maintained. Congress declined to ban marijuana, but in the Marihuana Taxation Act they levied a tax on the crop that had the same practical effect.

Timothy Leary, the psychedelic guru, challenged the act after his marijuana arrests in 1965 and 1966. G. Gordon Liddy, a local district attorney in New York who would later be convicted for his involvement in the Watergate break-in, led the raid on Leary's home in Millbrook, N.Y. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional. Not to be deterred, Congress went to work on the Federal Controlled Substances Act in 1970, in which marijuana, heroin and LSD were deemed to be without medical value.

That was the genesis of the modern war on pot -- an effort that has clearly flagged in recent years as the generations that came of age after the 1960s moved into the mainstream. But John Ashcroft, a man whose reputation includes never having touched alcohol or taken a drag on a cigarette, became attorney general in early 2001, promising to "reinvigorate the war on drugs." And he did. Under Hutchinson, a former prosecutor who made a name for himself as the congressman who took the lead in Clinton's impeachment, the DEA is cracking down on state-sanctioned medical marijuana operations, even small ones. So far the DEA has raided or arrested 17 medical marijuana providers in California, 15 of which came after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, plus one in Oregon. A week after medical pot-grower Steve McWilliams publicly handed out buds to show solidarity with the Corrals, the DEA confiscated 26 plants and 10 pounds of the drug he grew for patients in San Diego. Under the Clinton administration, there had been seven raids or arrests since Prop. 215 had passed in 1996, according to the A-Mark Foundation's MarijuanaInfo.org, which compiles information on medical marijuana.

"Attorney General Ashcroft is not stupid; he understands that if society changes its mind on medical marijuana, then it sets the table for a completely different discussion about marijuana and changes the debate about drug prohibition," says Jamin Raskin, a constitutional law professor at American University in Washington, and the author of "Overruling Democracy: The Supreme Court vs. The People," slated for publication in March. "This is the Battle of Bull Run in the war on drugs. If the critics of drug prohibition win on medical marijuana, the cards begin to topple in a more libertarian direction."

If the polls are right, most Americans oppose this strident stance on pot. In March 2001, the Pew Research Center found that 73 percent of Americans support medicinal marijuana laws. After Sept. 11, the respected polling firm of Zogby International did a survey for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws that found 61 percent favor decriminalizing possession of small amounts of the drug.

Support for medical marijuana cuts across generations --and party lines. It may be a hot-button for some conservatives, but it's not a Republican issue. Former President Ronald Reagan's director of communication, Lyn Nofziger, whose daughter died from cancer, speaks out for medical marijuana. New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, another Republican, is an outspoken proponent of legalizing marijuana. In Maryland, David Brinkley, a Republican candidate for state representative who survived Hodgkin's lymphoma 14 years ago, says his support of medical marijuana isn't even an issue in his campaign. "I'm a very conservative person in a very conservative district," he says. "But there comes a time when you have to be practical in dealing with patients and their concerns and needs."

Even Bush, during the 2000 presidential campaign, said he didn't see medical marijuana as warranting national attention. In October 1999, he told The Dallas Morning News that, with respect to medical marijuana, "each state can choose that decision as they so choose." Yet Bush, who has skirted questions about whether he ever used illegal drugs, has publicly changed his position. When he nominated John Walters for director of the Office of Drug Policy, he told the audience in the Rose Garden: "Acceptance of drug use is simply not an option for this administration. We emphatically disagree with those who favor drug legalization."

"This is crazy," says Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., sponsor of the States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act (H.R. 2592), a bill he introduced this year to permit states to allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. "I can't think of worse use of resources as we struggle to fight terrorism, charging people with conspiracy who are trying to alleviate pain. To prosecute them is ludicrous. It's the worst example of putting people's very vindictive, personal obsessions ahead of decency and rational public policy," he says. "They're doing it because they're obsessive right-wingers who think marijuana threatens all that Americans hold dear." Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, another alumnus of the Reagan White House, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

As drug czar, Walters is trying his best to make Americans fear marijuana legalization. In September, with several states and municipalities planning pot-related ballot measures, his office rolled out an ad campaign linking the drug to violence. The campaign is reminiscent of earlier government efforts to demonize marijuana. In one TV ad, Dan, a handsome all-American white teenager, buys his pot from a dealer who gets her drugs from a smuggler who gets his supplies from a swarthy, nefarious-looking man.

"While many people have made the connection between opium and terror, they see marijuana as a benign drug," Walters said in a statement. He declined Salon's request for an interview.

Walters last month campaigned against initiatives in Arizona and Nevada to decriminalize possession of pot in small amounts as part of an effort to make the drug more accessible to patients. He stopped in Tucson a week after a Northern Arizona University poll found that 53 percent of the voters supported a measure decriminalizing possession of up to two ounces. It would also require the state's Department of Public Safety, most likely police officers, to provide the drug free to patients who have doctors' recommendations. Speaking to local reporters, Walters labeled the initiative a "stupid, insulting con" and called medical marijuana "the 21st-century snake oil." A more recent poll shows 51 percent of voters opposed to the ballot question.

A few days later, Walters was in Nevada to campaign against the initiative that would allow adults to possess up to three ounces of marijuana and set up state-licensed and -taxed smoke shops to sell the drug. Medical marijuana proponents say they were trying to prevent patients from buying cannabis seeds on the black market to grow their plants. But Walters, frustrated with what he calls "distortions" from the proponents, told a local TV station in Reno, "I call this reefer madness, madness." The latest polls show about 60 percent of voters opposed to the decriminalization measure.

While Walters gave the media catchy sound bites, he declined to participate in debates with local politicians or proponents of the marijuana initiative. In Nevada, Billy Rogers, spokesman for Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement, invited him to a debate, but Walters declined. He said he'd only debate three people: George Soros, a billionaire who's now chairman of the liberal Open Society Institute; Peter Lewis, CEO of Progressive Insurance in Cleveland; and John Sperling, founder of the for-profit University of Phoenix.

To a large degree, today's marijuana debate is being shaped by six men: Ashcroft, Hutchinson and Walters on one side and Soros, Lewis and Sperling on the other. Lewis gave money to the Nevada group. Soros, Lewis and Sperling are major financial backers of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports state medical marijuana efforts. In a May 2002 Op-Ed in the Washington Post, Walters wrote: "By now most Americans realize that the push to 'normalize' marijuana for medical use is part of the drug legalization agenda. Its chief funders, George Soros, John Sperling and Peter Lewis, have spent millions to help pay for referendums and ballot initiatives in states from Alaska to Maine."

Ironically, pot does turn out to be the gateway drug, after all -- the gateway to less draconian drug laws. Probably no one understands this more than Walters, who has made a career out of championing the war on drugs. When William Bennett was secretary of education under Reagan, Walters, whose late father, Vernon Walters, served as deputy director of the CIA under Nixon and as U.N. ambassador under Reagan, was in charge of the Schools Without Drugs program. Then, when the first President Bush appointed Bennett the first drug czar in 1989, Walters was his chief of staff. And for a brief stint in 1993, he was acting drug czar until he quit when Clinton redirected the drug policy office's focus to hardcore users instead of enforcement and interdiction.

Even when many in the mid-'90s considered the drug war a failure, it never lost its appeal for Bennett, the self-appointed watchdog of American virtue, and Walters. Along with John J. DiIulio Jr., whom the current President Bush appointed to the newly created White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the men wrote "Body Count: Moral Poverty and How to Win America's War Against Crime and Drugs." In the book, the authors argue that "moral poverty" is at the root of all crime and that religion is "the best and most reliable means we have to reinforce the good."

Now Bennett and Walters are working together, again. Bennett, co-director of Empower America, a conservative group, is also co-chairman, along with Mario Cuomo, of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. In October, Walters' office and the partnership released a new series of ads focusing on teens and drugs.

Why this new obsession with the wicked weed? Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York City, which supports state efforts to legalize medicinal marijuana, says the administration is pandering to a small but vocal group of conservatives. "It's not about compassion, it's not about cost-benefit or anything like that. It's simply a moralistic, demonizing perspective on a certain activity," he says. "These people are anti-drug fanatics. They're modern-day Carrie Nations." Nation, an early prohibitionist, was a large woman, almost 6 feet tall and 180 pounds, who carried a hatchet in one hand to smash liquor bottles and a Bible in the other. She once destroyed the bar in Wichita's finest hotel.

California's Prop. 215 tried circumventing the Controlled Substance Act for medical marijuana. The Clinton administration challenged Prop. 215, and in May 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision written by Justice Clarence Thomas that the drug "has no medical benefits worthy of an exception" under the Federal Controlled Substances Act. Coincidentally, Thomas was the justice Ashcroft chose to swear him in as attorney general.

In doing so, the U.S. Supreme Court gave Ashcroft, the son of a Pentecostal preacher, a way to attack state medical marijuana laws. Within a few months after the high court's decision, the DEA stepped up raids and arrests of state-sanctioned medical marijuana providers in California.

"From their perspective, all the legal issues have been resolved," says Gerald Uelmen, an influential professor at Santa Clara College School of Law and attorney for the Santa Cruz marijuana co-operative, who is challenging the raid on constitutional grounds. "They're treating all the marijuana groups and organizations as though they were illicit drug dealers. They're coming in with guns blazing as though they're crack houses or methamphetamine labs."

A day after the raid in Santa Cruz, California's Attorney General Bill Lockyer fired off a letter to Ashcroft and Hutchinson, complaining that it was "a disheartening addition to a growing list of provocative and intrusive incidents of harassment by the DEA in California." The DEA is conducting raids on state-sanctioned marijuana clubs as a "punitive expedition," added Lockyer, a Democrat. In closing, he asked to have a meeting with Hutchinson and Ashcroft to come up with more "realistic and reasonable" alternatives.

But if California's top law enforcement official was expecting some reconciliation, he must have been disappointed. In a rather starchy, almost condescending reply, Hutchinson, wrote: "Your repeated references to 'medical' or 'medicinal' marijuana illustrates a common misperception that marijuana is safe and effective medicine." Further, he continued, "state 'medical' marijuana laws -- including those in California -- are being abused to facilitate traditional illegal marijuana trafficking and associated crime." In his letter, Hutchinson offered no evidence to prove the claim.

Hallye Jordan, Lockyer's press secretary, said conflicts between state and federal law are bound to continue until the federal government changes the Controlled Substance Act and lets doctors prescribe marijuana to their patients. In the meantime, she said, Lockyer's office will adhere to the state's law and leave medical marijuana operations alone.

The DEA's bullying tactics may have had unintended consequences. For 15 years, the San Jose Police Department has worked with federal agents to arrest drug dealers. But a month after the raid on the Corrals, San Jose Police Chief William Lansdowne pulled his men off of a DEA task force. "The most pressing problem is methamphetamine and that is where we should spend our time, not on medical marijuana," he says. "I think their [the DEA's] priorities are out of sync with local law."

Uelmen, the Corrals' lawyer, has filed a suit against the U.S. government, contending that the search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment and that the Federal Controlled Substances Act exceeds congressional power to regulate interstate commerce under the Tenth Amendment. Uelmen hopes this case will finally resolve the conflict between state rights to regulate medical marijuana and federal narcotic laws.

In Santa Cruz, meanwhile, it turns out that the DEA didn't get all of Valerie and Michael Corral's stash. Undaunted by the legal obstacles, they continue to hand out pot to their co-operative's members. "The only other option is rolling over," Valerie says. "That means something very dramatic when you're facing death. That means rolling over and dying. And that is not an option for us."

By Louise Witt

Louise Witt is a writer who lives in Hoboken, N.J.

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