In a recent news conference at the White House, President Carter outlined a plan for a reform of this country’s drug laws. Carter’s recommendation that the federal law against possession of marijuana be amended so that possession of small amounts of pot would bring nothing more than a civil fine rather than a jail sentence is certainly a step in the right direction, but it is only a small first step in a long overdue process of drug reform generally.
Unfortunately, Carter’s proposals also contained a number of suggestions that would bring this country very close to the nightmare of “1984.” Carter is going to ask Congress for legislation to help federal agents in a stepped-up war on “drug traffickers.” His program includes making the presently severe penalties for illicit drug use and sale even more harsh. The U.S. Magistrates, who now only handle small civil matters, would be given expanded authority to routinely give individuals convicted of drug offenses up to a year in prison, without the opportunity to have a jury trial. Federal officials would also be given the authority to seize up to $10,000 of a drug offender’s property without having to get a court order, and the IRS would be given the go-ahead to harass suspected drug dealers with repeated audits of their tax returns and full-scale investigation of their private lives.
What is particularly frightening about Carter’s proposals ‘is that it was only recently, under the Nixon Administration, that we saw the drug laws used as an excuse to prosecute people because of their social or political beliefs. We still remember all too vividly how, in the government’s last “War on Drugs,” federal drug agents in East St. Louis, Illinois broke into a family’s home and terrorized them with shotguns while their home was torn apart in a search for drugs. Of course, the agents had the wrong house and the wrong suspects.
The problem is not with federal agents, however. The problem is with a law that gives any police officials a blank check to search out and destroy suspected drug offenders. Suspects are denied even the basic constitutional protection’s given accused murderers, kidnappers, arsonists and rapists.
Once any group in our society is singled out as not entitled to legal safeguards, then all of us are in trouble. As Edward Epstein documents in his recent book, Agency of Fear, President Nixon was in the process, before Watergate, of using the drug laws and the inevitable bureaucracy assembled to enforce those laws as a means of creating a private gestapo directed from the White House against all those that Nixon perceived as “enemies.”
We share President Carter’s professed belief that a new approach has to be taken to the drug laws, but Carter’s program sounds like more of the old approach to us. Carter is concerned about the social costs of illicit drug abuse, but according to the government’s own recent figures, far more deaths and injuries result from legal barbiturates, tranquilizers, and alcohol than are caused by such drugs as heroin, morphine, or any of the hallucinogens. It’s still a felony in this country to grow a pot plant in your windowsill or to sell an ounce of pot to your friend, but tobacco growers are given hundreds and millions of dollars of federal price supports so they can grow a substance that has been shown to be an addictive carcinogen. Distributors of illicit drugs are “pushers,” but distributors of legal drugs are “sales representatives” of multi-billion dollar drug companies that profit from their encouragement to doctors to overprescribe tranquilizers and barbiturates.
Our present system of criminal penalties for drug offenses has totally failed to limit the availability of illicit drugs in this country, has undermined the civil liberties of all Americans, and has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars and countless thousands of man-hours in a futile attempt to enforce those laws. It’s time we tried another approach. The abuse of any drugs should be discouraged by the dissemination of information about the potential dangers of certain drugs, but the criminal system is a totally inappropriate way of dealing with the problem.
Charlotte Faye Greenberg
Editor & Publisher