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The Drug War Goes Up in Smoke | The Nation

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The Drug War Goes Up in Smoke

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But while state legislatures have opened up the financial and moral debates about drug policy at the local level, the federal government is having none of it. The most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that the number of people charged with drug offenses in federal courts rose sharply, from 11,854 in 1984 to 29,306 in 1999. During roughly the same period, the amount of time a federal drug prisoner could expect to serve in prison more than doubled, from thirty months to sixty-six months.

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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On many issues, from gun ownership to environmental regulation, the Bush team has backed the conservative cause of states' rights. But the Administration has blocked even mild attempts at state drug-law reform and has challenged state reformers over issues such as medical marijuana and needle exchange. The Justice Department has fought medical marijuana laws in court and launched a massive PR campaign against pot use. It has even pursued federal prosecution of those who legally distribute medical marijuana under state laws. Attorney General John Ashcroft is "willing to push even the smallest cases," says David Fratello, political director of the Campaign for New Drug Policies. "We're seeing a new level of pettiness and aggression."

Clinton's drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, was criticized by drug policy reformers for his refusal to discuss legalization initiatives and his zeal for militarizing the drug wars overseas. But these advocates find Bush's czar, John Walters, to be even worse. Under Walters's reign, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has encouraged state prosecutors to go after medical marijuana providers, especially in California, and has driven underground virtually every medical-marijuana buyers' club in the country. It has held press conferences against citizens' reform initiatives. And it has sponsored extravagant advertising campaigns in state and local papers and on television stations--with $180 million earmarked for antimarijuana ads alone--that demonize teen drug use by linking it to terrorism.

Walters has also put pressure on state legislators, declaring that many drug-law reforms would contravene federal laws. In the fall 2002 elections, he traversed the country, stopping in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and Ohio, campaigning against medical marijuana efforts and meeting with newspaper editors to push his case. The House version of the ONDCP Reauthorization Act originally included a provision that would have brought such politicking to a new level, allowing the White House to spend almost $1 billion in public money on ads attacking state and local ballot measures that promote drug-law reform. Interestingly, a Republican-led House committee removed that provision before approving the bill.

Yet in many ways Walters may be fighting yesterday's war on drugs. States like California, with its extensive system of medical-marijuana buyers' clubs, and New Mexico, with its public support for needle exchange, are beginning to shape up as the vanguard of a whole new approach to drug addiction.

In the poorest barrios of Albuquerque, teams of workers with Youth Development, Inc. (YDI) take their vans from one addict-client to another. Late into the night, they visit shooting galleries, ordinary private homes and the cardboard shelters constructed in alleyways by some of the city's homeless. At each, they reclaim dirty needles, fill in forms identifying the numbers returned, give out an equivalent number of clean needles, provide bottles of needle-cleaning solutions and also offer their clients HIV tests.

This was once a fairly undergound operation. But now groups like YDI operate across the state with strong support and funding from New Mexico's Department of Health. All told, they distribute hundreds of thousands of clean needles per month to almost 7,000 card-carrying clients--and retrieve hundreds of thousands of dirty needles.

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