‘Reefer Madness,’ ‘90s Style

Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail:

What has White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey been smoking? Unable to accept the decision of a majority of voters in California and Arizona to legalize the medical use of marijuana, McCaffrey now wants to revoke the licenses and even arrest doctors who prescribe marijuana for their patients.

His is the throwback conviction of a true zealot obsessed with hemp as the scourge of civilization despite the overwhelming evidence that this particular drug should be among the least of our worries. Worse yet, he seems to have gotten most of the Clinton Cabinet high on this modern version of reefer madness.

In the process, Clinton’s drug warriors demonize George Soros, arguably the most genuinely philanthropic individual in the world, for contributing to those voter initiatives. Soros, who has poured a fortune into bringing the message of an open society to formerly communist Eastern Europe, had the effrontery to practice what he preaches at home.

Consider the arrogance of anyone in the administration daring to suggest that contributions to an electoral campaign might distort the process. Yet there was DEA chief Thomas Constantine sneering: “Why should we allow a few individuals who write checks in the comfort of their upper-class homes to dictate policies which we know are harmful?” Fine, but if we are going to vitiate the decision of voters in California and Arizona on the basis of large campaign contributions from “upper-class homes,” then Clinton’s resignation is in order. At least Soros is a U.S. citizen who didn’t expect business favors for his money.


Why are these government bureaucrats and their civilian cheerleaders in the ever profitable anti-drug war so threatened by the rational decision of voters to experiment with legalization of marijuana under extremely limited and controlled circumstances? Because they thrill to the power and perks implicit in the crusade, proving again that self-righteous moralizing is the most dangerous psychoactive drug of all.

These zealots claim our dollars and cram prison cells with a shrill insistence on zero tolerance of all proscribed drugs as if they are equally dangerous. This undifferentiated approach, which equates smoking a joint with mainlining heroin, is essential to the edifice of their empire because the big numbers have always been in marijuana use. If hemp is ever removed from the official scourge category, well, gosh, there just isn’t much of a plague. Giving marijuana up as an enemy would be as traumatic as the Soviet Union’s collapse was for those who lived only to fight the Cold War.

The new scare tactic of the drug warriors is to point to a rise in teenage marijuana use over the past five years that is still far below levels when Bill Clinton was a youth. Yet no weapon has been denied them in the battle for the hearts and minds of the young, and if kids are using marijuana more now, it is a measure of the failure of the drug war.

In particular, the massively funded DARE program has been a thundering bust. That was the conclusion of a review of 120 separate studies of DARE paid for by the Department of Justice two years ago but never published. In California, a comprehensive study commissioned by the state Department of Education also was suppressed because it came to the same conclusion: Ideological rigidity and effective education do not mix.


One problem is that the simplistic attack on marijuana is based on a lie that young people can see through. Tell them that it is dangerous to smoke a joint and drive, and they might, and should, believe you. But don’t insist that it is more dangerous than alcohol, which is the leading killer of teens.

Exaggerating the effects of any drug increases the appeal of all as young people turn to a culture of disbelief. Tell them that you can overdose on marijuana, which you can’t, and they discount warnings about heroin overdose, a true menace.

Teenagers should not use marijuana, cigarettes or alcohol, but many have and will, and, as the suppressed studies have shown, they will be educated to the real risks of substance abuse only with a message that honestly engages them as intelligent and questioning people.

So, too, for the rest of us. End the scare strategy that has not worked on teenagers or adult voters. We need more information rather than less, and the administration must end its harassment of doctors who prescribe a remedy they judge to be helpful to desperately ill patients. This very limited experiment with the legal use of marijuana would provide sorely needed data on the drug’s properties and risks. Truth, in all its complexity, is not the enemy.