President Bush's drug czar, John Walters, is leading a new systematic nationwide effort to quash citizens' initiatives on pot reform. The trend was established last year when Walters successfully campaigned to defeat initiatives in Nevada, Ohio, and Missouri. Last week, his campaign arrived in Seattle for an afternoon press conference, just six days before the primary election, to challenge Initiative 75--a measure to deprioritize Seattle's pot laws. [After this story went to print, I-75 held a comfortable lead at 58.62%. --Eds.]
Miraculously, even though I'm the steering committee chair of I-75, I made it through the door, grabbed a free cookie, and eagerly took a seat, without so much as a peep from the swarms of men in black. The event was set against the backdrop of the Recovery Centers of King County detox facility--a politically savvy choice on Walters' part. The health-oriented facility could make one forget that Walters is more supportive of throwing people in prison than sending them to rehab for addiction. The setting was also misleading, since this place had likely never detoxed a single person for just pot. (When I asked how many people came to detox for pot alone, the facility was unable to cite any examples.)
Before Walters could step up to the flag-draped lectern, we watched presentations from a couple of local officials, who gave the impression that Walters' 25-city tour was, in fact, part of a local effort. First up, to my surprise, was City Attorney Tom Carr. Carr had been my halfhearted opposition at editorial board meetings all over town. Here, he was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with White House minions who vehemently opposed the initiative. Just the week before, as I was sitting across the table from Carr during one ed board meeting, he was asked, "On a scale of one to 10, how opposed are you to I-75?" Carr responded with a tepid "Five." But suddenly, with Walters by his side, Carr practically revoked his status as a progressive Seattleite--delivering a speech praising the work of the White House, offering to collaborate with D.C., and thanking Walters for "sending the right message."
Finally, we got to hear from John P. Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. His central mantra is this: Treatment facilities for illicit drug users are clogged with more pot smokers than users of any other drug, many of those arrested for other crimes test positive for marijuana, and initiatives to decriminalize pot are sending the wrong message to kids. All the pieces of Walters' well-crafted propaganda had one thing in common: Each tied indisputable facts to an unrelated editorial conclusion while leaving out relevant details.
In his first point--namely, that around 50 percent of young people are in U.S. drug treatment centers for marijuana use--Walters concluded that marijuana is very dangerous and addictive. What's left out is that these folks reluctantly choose treatment centers over cellblocks in order to skip jail time. Really, which would you choose: a treatment center with comfy beds and nice healthcare professionals, or a 12-foot-by-12-foot concrete box? Although Walters opposes measures to implement rehabilitation over incarceration, he paints an illusion of a growing problem that doesn't exist.
Next, Walters cited a 2002 statistic from the National Institute of Justice, stating that 39 percent of male arrestees in Seattle test positive for pot, whereas far fewer test positive for cocaine or methamphetamine. Walters would have you conclude that smoking pot makes people spontaneously break other laws. There are two missing links in this equation: the number of people who use these drugs in the first place, and the physiology of how long these drugs stay in the body. Marijuana is the most popular illicit drug; meth and cocaine are used by a relatively small percentage of the population, so of course more people have pot in their systems. Cocaine stays in the body for only a few days, but THC (pot's active ingredient) is stored in fat cells and then released into the bloodstream over a period of weeks. One could test positive for pot more than a month after one's last toke.
Finally, Walters' strongest piece was designed to trigger fear in parents everywhere: "Initiatives like I-75 send the wrong message to kids," and "What about the children?" Walters' ceaseless braying about the children has the best intentions; realistically, nobody wants children to get high. Nobody. But Walters' approach--saying that pot is very dangerous--only exacerbates the problem. How do kids respond to D.A.R.E.'s message that kids should "Just say no"? Any parent knows the fastest way to entice an adolescent is to label something "dangerous" and make it off-limits.
Walters' talk of implementing treatment for abusers and keeping our kids off pot is admirable, but it doesn't reflect what is actually happening under his policies. None of the $19 billion drug-war budget has been shifted away from enforcement and toward treatment (or toward offering kids information that will help them understand drug abuse). And how, exactly, would a young person be helped if he or she actually got busted? Going to jail, losing opportunities for student aid, and being branded with a criminal record is a greater setback than smoking a joint. Walters recently proposed $600 million for treatment programs, but if that ever happens, it's still a token drop in the bucket considering the drug war's overemphasis on enforcement. The sermon is a charade, since Walters really supports locking people up (over 700,000 for pot offenses last year in the U.S.).
Walters didn't acknowledge that maintaining current levels of drug-law enforcement would send millions more people up the river, waste countless billions of tax dollars, clog our courts, and ultimately fail to reduce our drug problems. A real drug war would be a war on addiction, misinformation, and joblessness, rather than a war on otherwise law-abiding citizens.
Unfortunately, Walters' propaganda campaigns have been very effective. Nevada's Question 9 (a measure similar to I-75) was the focus of his visit to that state during the 2002 election. Walters managed to scare the crap out of parents by holding multiple news conferences, meeting with newspapers, and concluding his visit with a crescendo of pricey TV ads. Bruce Mirkin of the Marijuana Policy Project, the primary organization that sponsored Question 9, said that while Walters campaigned, "we saw poll results shift. Early results showed us even, but we ended up losing, 39 percent to 61 percent."
By the time this article is inked, Walters will be off to his next city, and we'll know if he was as successful in Seattle as he was in places like Nevada. (Both the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have come out against I-75.) If the measure has passed, Seattle can give itself a pat on the back for sticking to its guns and not succumbing to pressures from the Bush administration. If I-75 has failed, Walters will have racked up another victory in Bush's strong-arm efforts against local communities' attempts to rein in the ill-conceived drug war.
Dominic Holden is the steering committee chair of Initiative 75 and the director of Seattle Hempfest, the nation's largest marijuana policy reform rally.