The New Politics of the Drug War

Dec. 14 1996 3:30 AM

The New Politics of the Drug War

Voters in California and Arizona just said no to draconian laws.


Did Election Day mark the beginning of the end of the War on Drugs? To some drug warriors, the reform initiatives approved by voters in California and Arizona were the first step toward unilateral disarmament.


"The implications of this for the social norms that keep kids away from drugs are very serious," says Steve Dnistrian, senior vice president of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. "There has been no greater fundamental challenge to the drug-prevention field in a long time."

What is beyond dispute is that advocates of drug reform are enjoying unprecedented success in setting the nation's drug-policy agenda, at least for the moment. The "get-tough," "just say no" party is on the defensive.

Since the first term of President Richard Nixon, the American political system has responded to popular concerns about drug use by funding the steady expansion of federal and state law-enforcement agencies. With the advent of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s, the civic credos of "getting tough" and "just saying no" carried the weight of common sense and enjoyed sway in schools, print, and on the airwaves.

Enter: the marijuana problem. Between 1992 and 1996, the number of teen-agers smoking marijuana roughly doubled, a phenomenon that received wide attention during the recent presidential campaign. But Bob Dole's harsh attacks on Bill Clinton for allegedly condoning this development failed to excite American voters. Given the perception of a leadership vacuum around the time of the election, it's not surprising that initiatives such as those in Arizona and California emerged.

Though lumped together in articles like this, the two laws are actually quite different. Arizona's is the more sweeping. It requires that all nonviolent drug offenders be paroled (an estimated 1,000 persons are eligible to go free within the next 90 days); that the money saved in jail-related costs go toward funding of a new parents' commission on drug education; that all violent drug offenders do 100 percent of their sentence; and, almost as an afterthought, allows doctors to prescribe marijuana, heroin, or LSD. The California law, by contrast, shields from prosecution persons who use marijuana under an oral or written "recommendation" from a medical practitioner.

"The California law is an implicit rejection of the drug war," says Sam Vagenas, spokesman for pro-reform forces in Arizona. "Arizona was an explicit rejection."

Is the result a delegitimization of the drug war--a cultural surrender--an instance of defining deviancy down, as cultural conservatives would have it? Judge for yourself.

On the Internet, one entrepreneurial mind has already set up a Web site offering 27 grams of mail-order medical relief for $270 ("taxes included") and handy guidelines for how to smoke it. The legality is virtual: "All buyers must send copy of medical report and birth certificate." A return address in given. Is this a brazen hoax? Street dealing on the information highway? Proceed, with a caveat emptor, to:

In the Family Therapy Network chat room, a posting on marijuana proved to be the most popular ever, prompting a wide-ranging adult discussion of law, professional responsibility, mental health, addiction, mind expansion, and above all, children.


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