Drug Hysteria

Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann’s excellent new documentary, Grass, traces the absurd history of the national campaign to stamp out marijuana use, a century-long exercise in official hysteria and futility. Using reams of exhaustively researched period material, Mann recounts a highly symbolic culture war that takes a slightly different form in each generation. Among the film’s highlights are its contrapuntal anthologies of drug-themed pop music and melodramatic anti-drug propaganda of the Reefer Madness variety. Indeed, Reefer Madness is among the more sophisticated examples of foolishness produced by the drug warriors, led by the original Narco-Man, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Harry J. Anslinger.

From the comfort of an Austin theater seat, drug war history can seem largely comical, a retro melodrama in which everyone plays his appointed role, and nobody gets hurt.

Would that it were so. As Nate Blakeslee’s story in this issue confirms, the drug war continues across the country, and leaving in its wake thousands of real victims: mostly ordinary people whose drug transgressions are punished with an official zeal entirely out of proportion to any real public danger. In this instance, a tiny African-American community in a small Panhandle town was targeted for an undercover assault, which supposedly apprehended dozens of “drug dealers” among people barely making ends meet. It was a campaign against lawbreakers hardly constituting a public nuisance, let alone a crime wave. Even more shameless was the nature of the operation: dozens of cases were made solely on the basis of the uncorroborated testimony of a single undercover officer, with a dubious history. That the authorities focused their efforts on a minority community excluded from the town’s white society and economy compounds the official disgrace.

It is comforting to believe that the Tulia story is a rare exception, and that abuses by enforcement agencies are uncommon. But the Observer’s reporting suggests the opposite. In his background research, Nate discovered a largely unreported drug war fiasco from ten years ago, involving a dishonest undercover officer in Sutton County and a slew of dismissed indictments and overturned convictions. Over the past year, Nate has covered other such stories:

• In West Texas, a task force besotted by asset confiscation and weaponry moving into paramilitary operations aimed at mythical smugglers and real illegal immigrants;

• In San Marcos, another task force engaging in paramilitary arrests over a few ounces of pot, killing a supposed “drug dealer” previously entrapped by a disreputable informant.

It doesn’t stop there. Three years ago we reported on the killing of teenage goat-herd Ezekiel Hernández by U.S. Marines on a counter-drug patrol near the Mexican border. That tragedy produced only a temporary abatement in the desire of federal authorities to militarize the border on behalf of the drug war. Such violent flashpoints tend to obscure the war’s more mundane, day-to-day flouting of civil rights, which has become frighteningly commonplace. A few weeks ago, yet another task force invaded Midwestern State University dorms, with a flagrantly unconstitutional search justified as a way to “protect” its victims. Meanwhile, the prisons fill with “drug criminals” whose misfortune was to be caught (or entrapped) in possession of the wrong intoxicant. Now we are told that another round of prison construction will soon be necessary.

The lives ruined in the name of the drug war are just the domestic aspect of a national madness that transcends our own borders. The Congressional drumbeat for literal drug warfare in Colombia, with U.S. helicopters, defoliant, and the ominous dispatching of “military advisors,” is yet another attempt to expand a hysterical and counterproductive policy which cannot and will not work, except to intensify a larger and more sinister militarization of the whole society.

One might think that a presidential campaign in which the current incumbent, as well as his would-be successors from both major parties, has each effectively confessed to youthful experimentation with drugs might signal a cultural sea-change, and a re-examination of the failure of prohibition. Instead, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and George W. Bush – none of whom ran any serious risk of legal repercussions for his youthful “crimes” – has each done his part, in the name of law and order, to reinforce the hysteria of the law enforcement model of drug control, which strikes hardest at those who can least defend themselves. – M.K.

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Published at 12:00 am CST