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George Soros's Long Strange Trip | The Nation

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George Soros's Long Strange Trip

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Most drug-policy experts agree that Soros and his associates have affected the national dialogue on drugs but see only one or two areas of concrete advances. "Ethan Nadelmann is a major figure in the drug-reform area, but I don't detect any movement on the issues coming from anything other than medical-marijuana initiatives," says Philip Heymann, who served as Deputy Attorney General under Clinton, where he was a key Justice Department figure with regard to drug issues. And those initiatives draw credible criticism that Soros and his associates are using a medical issue to advance the broader political agenda of drug decriminalization.

Research assistance: David Levinson Wilk.

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Russ Baker
Russ Baker is the founder of the Real News Project. He may be reached at contact@realnews.org.

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The harm-reduction approach has achieved other, less spectacular victories. After years of inaction, the House finally passed what had been a perennially doomed bill to soften the punitive forfeiture of civil assets by those arrested for drug offenses [see Eric Blumenson and Eva Nilsen, "The Drug War's Hidden Economic Agenda," March 9, 1998]. While the credit for this shift can't be attributed specifically to Soros, his outfits have been active on the issue recently; OSI made a grant several months ago to the libertarian Cato Institute for a conference on forfeiture, and the Lindesmith Center hosted a seminar on the topic. Meanwhile, both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Institutes of Health have issued statements expressing their support for needle exchange, methadone treatment and medical marijuana. Polls nationwide show increased public skepticism toward the war on drugs and, in most cases, favorable opinion for efforts like medical marijuana. (Last year Congress refused to count the vote of a Washington, DC, medical-marijuana initiative; exit polls suggested that it had passed by 69 percent.) In addition, there's growing sympathy among judges, legislators and ordinary citizens for doing away with harsh mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Lindesmith has been fighting an uphill battle to expand treatment for intravenous drug users, but this past summer the prospects finally became brighter. In July, the Clinton Administration proposed significant changes in methadone treatment policy, including national accreditation for methadone centers and a system for accrediting hospitals and doctors so that they can prescribe the drug. (The final regulations are expected to be issued early next year.) Yet the gap between available treatment slots and drug abusers who want them remains huge.

Even less promising is the status of needle exchange. Despite Soros's $1 million matching grant to fund clean needles--and his support of many foundations working in this area--there has been little change in public policy toward such programs. In April of last year, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala was set to give a press conference announcing the government's reversal of its position on needle-exchange funding, but the Clinton Administration reneged at the last minute.

Surveying these wins and losses, Soros himself says he has no intention of remaining the sole patron of the movement. "I think we want to move toward more publicly funded activity rather than being bankrolled by fat cats," he says. He's also pushing for smaller contributions from a larger base. Making good on his promise to allow the whole enterprise to sink or swim, as he has recently done with some of his Central and Eastern European nonprofits, Soros has cut back his donations to the DPF, eliminating funds for the group's operations while continuing to fund its community-treatment grant program. DPF's Tyler Green says that several heavily endowed old-line foundations have already offered to step into the breach (he asked that their names not be used). As for the marijuana initiatives, other funders plan to stay committed. "We're in this for the long haul," says University of Phoenix's Sperling. "We're on a roll." Among other things, they plan to retry initiatives in Maine, Nevada and Colorado, where technicalities prevented them from getting on the ballot last time.

"The first five years have focused on a critique of the current approach," says Gara LaMarche, OSI's director of US programs. "The question is, What now? If the medical-marijuana initiatives showed that the conventional thinking on the war on drugs can be overcome, what's the long-term agenda? We need to focus more on the intersection of drugs and the criminal justice system--to address the disabilities that affect great numbers of people, including drug testing, prosecution of minor offenses and mandatory minimums." Lindesmith, LaMarche says, will probably be spun out as a freestanding organization.

"I think if there is any real challenge the Lindesmith Center and the drug-policy reform movement are facing, it is how to take a political viewpoint and ideology and turn it into a movement," says Lindesmith's Small. "It isn't now. There's a group of people who share a common perspective, but it hasn't been turned into a plan of action. To be a movement, you have got to be able to communicate goals and aspirations to other communities, especially the minority communities. Those communities are not only not represented in the movement, they're not even aware that a movement exists."

After five years of verbal brickbats from drug warriors, Soros says he doesn't mind being a target: "Other people express more respect for me because I am ready to say something that they would like to say if they could afford it." Even staunch opponents of his views admire Soros's unwavering commitment. "He doesn't care how many articles are written against him," says New York Times columnist and drug warrior A.M. Rosenthal, a heavy critic of Soros who nevertheless notes, "Social responsibility is what is important to him."

Many Americans--especially strong supporters of a tough-on-drugs policy--still imagine drug users as people distinctly different from themselves. As Nadelmann likes to point out, Americans' attitude toward drug users today is reminiscent of our attitude toward homosexuals thirty years ago. "You know one, you just don't know you know one," he says. We also don't know whether enlightened policy models that work in small, relatively low-crime, relatively homogeneous and unfractured European societies will necessarily work here. There are just too many variables. To critics, Soros, Nadelmann and company are proposing a dangerous new course whose consequences are uncertain at best and potentially disastrous. "Lindesmith Center's line is deliberately vague," says UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman, a drug-reform moderate. "It's like it used to be with the Old Leftists when you'd ask them, 'What's life going to be like after the revolution?' 'Oh, well, we'll decide that after the revolution.'" Still, few would dispute that Soros is fostering a bracing debate on whether being at war with ourselves is really the best--or only--way to win the "war" against drugs.

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