A 7-year-old Queens, N.Y., boy is charged with sexual harassment and suspended from the second grade for kissing a female classmate; within a week, his picture is on the front page of the NewYorkTimes. A similar incident involving a 6-year-old schoolboy in North Carolina becomes a national scandal. Commentators cluck delightedly over the latest little victims of feminists-who-have-gone-too-far. "We are deep into the McCarthyite phase" of the campaign against sexual harassment, John Leo opines in U.S. News & World Report.
Meanwhile, the story of two girls suspended from junior high school for trafficking in Midol, the well-known over-the-counter pain pill for women, has been slower to build, and has crested at a lower level of media frenzy. The suspension occurred Sept. 20--a week before the notorious episode in Queens--but didn't gain real national attention until the past day or so. Why the difference? The story about the boys plays into easy alarums about "political correctness." The story about the girls plays against an unacknowledged form of political correctness: anti-drug hysteria. The excesses of sexual-harassment regulations are popular targets for defenders of common sense because feminism remains a target for pundits on the right--and the concept of harassment remains controversial. The idiocies of drug policies are widely tolerated, or often celebrated.
E ven Bob Dole would probably not consider Midol a gateway drug. The experiences of eighth graders Erica Taylor and Kimberly Smartt ought to subject hysteria about drugs to a little reality testing. Their descent into drug abuse began Sept. 6 when Kimberly, suffering from menstrual cramps and a slight fever, took a packet of Midol from the school nurse's office without permission. She shared the pills with her classmate, Erica. The girls made the mistake of exchanging notes during this transaction that were later discovered by school officials. Both were charged with possession under a zero-tolerance drug policy that does not distinguish between legal and illegal, prescription and nonprescription drugs. Erica was given a 10-day suspension, of which she served nine days before agreeing to attend a drug-screening and education program. School officials dropped a recommendation for her expulsion. Kimberly, the supplier, was expelled from school for 80 days. She got no opportunity to mitigate her sentence.
School officials were unrepentant, defending their policy as a part of an effort to maintain "safe, drug-free schools"--until Kimberly sued. But Kimberly is not challenging the school's anti-drug regulations. She is charging racial discrimination. Kimberly is black, and Erica is white. Because her case is now about race and not drugs, Kimberly is back in school.
I t seems unlikely, however, that this case will incite the same challenges to zero-tolerance drug policies that were directed toward sexual-harassment regulations after the cases of the kissing 7-year-olds. Kimberly Smartt will probably not be defended as a victim of McCarthyism. Indeed, her mother told the Dayton Daily News that she "could understand" a suspension for dealing in Midol; it was the expulsion that seemed too harsh.
Yet, anti-drug crusaders routinely lie to children about drug use, just as politicians lie about their own past experiences. The campaign against marijuana is particularly disingenuous. Drug-awareness programs teach kids that it is addictive and will lead them down the path to heroin and cocaine dependencies, while many parents who inhaled regularly throughout their college years remain uncomfortably silent. Meanwhile, the testimony of politicians like Susan Molinari who confess their youthful "experimentation" with marijuana contradicts rhetoric about its addictive qualities. For Molinari, and millions like her, pot was just a gateway to Republicanism. Some 70 million Americans, and probably a majority of citizens between 16 and 45, have smoked marijuana at least once, according to drug-policy critic Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center.
P enal laws regulating the possession and distribution of marijuana are as difficult to justify as school policies expelling eighth graders for distributing Midol. For a first offense, such as growing marijuana at home, you may be sentenced to five years in prison under federal law. Federal drug laws, in general, are excessively harsh, as the press occasionally observes. In 1993, the New York Times ran a story about a hapless 24-year-old serving 10 years in federal prison for agreeing to help an undercover agent find someone selling LSD at a Grateful Dead concert.
In fact, the gross inequities and disastrous inefficiencies of imposing long, mandatory minimum sentences on nonviolent, low-level drug offenders are acknowledged by virtually everyone familiar with the criminal justice system who isn't running for office. (Ninety percent of federal judges, Republican and Democratic, consider mandatory minimums for drug offenses "a bad idea.") At the very least, anti-drug laws misuse prison space: About 60 percent of all federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses, some involving simple possession of marijuana or cocaine.
Considering federal and state laws against drug use, the actions of a few overzealous school officials intent on keeping their hallways free of caffeine and acetaminophen, the ingredients of Midol, provide comic relief. Although it is serious business to them, the case against Erica Taylor and Kimberly Smartt is the light side of the war on drugs, which has been one of the biggest public-policy disasters of the past 25 years. Instead of decreasing drug use, it has increased the violence connected with illicit drug trafficking, greatly exacerbating the problem of gun violence. The black market in drugs creates a need for weapons and probably the cash with which to purchase them. While we snicker at rules banning Midol from junior high schools, we ignore the damage wrought by laws prohibiting selectively demonized drugs--notably marijuana, heroin, and cocaine (while allowing use of tobacco, alcohol, and Prozac).
This is not an argument for the legalization or decriminalization of drugs; it is a plea for dispassionate consideration of the respective costs and benefits. We don't have rational drug policies in the streets or public schools because we don't have rational discussions about drug use. It is popularly considered a moral failing, not a practical or medical problem for some people. The war against drugs is not a war against crime; it's a crusade against vice. Former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders discovered as much when she suggested that we might study the effects of legalization, which was a bit like her other absurdly controversial suggestion that masturbation was normal. Dr. Elders might have gleaned from the reaction to her remarks that no one in Congress has ever masturbated or used drugs. Most Americans will have a tough time living up to its standards.