Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Fatal Distraction(s)

Americans are being constantly reminded that there are fanatical people in the world hell bent on killing them. They are also being reminded that since that fateful day in 2001 there has been no additional successful terror attack on US soil. Thus, the average American goes to sleep every night content that every possible thing is being done to protect them against waking up one day to the “mushroom cloud” thought to be the penultimate goal of the aforementioned bad guys. But what if our government actually isn’t doing every possible thing that it can, and isn’t devoting every possible dollar, computer and brain to preventing such a calamity? Worse yet, what if a large chunk of the required assets already existed, but rather than being devoted to guarding us against terrorism were being used to protect us from pot? What if, in our zeal to find grow ops and “meth labs,” we fail to detect the people next door assembling a weapon of mass destruction? And, really, who would you rather be protected from: a guy with a bong, or a guy with a bomb?

These are some of the issues addressed in the latest book by Arnold S. Trebach, “Fatal Distraction: The War on Drugs in the Age of Islamic Terror.” Trebach has argued for more than the past two decades that America’s so-called “war on drugs” is a misguided and ill-conceived public policy that has led to disastrous consequences that exceed by far those actually caused by drug abuse. He is trying to sound the alarm as loudly as possible this time around, given the apparent gravity of the current situation with the “Global War on Terror.” What needs to be done is blindingly obvious to him: we need to end the drug war, legalize all the drugs, and take the vast resources being squandered on the drug war and put them on the job of protecting us from Islamic fanatics. While, at first glance, that may seem like a radical idea, as he puts it: “Intolerable situations demand radical reforms.”

Certainly, there won’t be many people who would argue that terrorism is not a real threat (though perhaps not as grave a threat as is claimed, given that the claims about that threat are being made by the very same government waging the drug war), but there is still a bit of a hard sell involved in getting the public at large to take the “radical” move of ending the drug war. Trebach has been down that particular road before, and as expected does an outstanding job of presenting the academic arguments that readily disprove all of the claims surrounding drug use and its impacts on society. What is most impressive in this effort, however, is how he is able to succinctly weave together an incredible array of the various facets of the drug war into a single, coherent, and easy to read whole. His central focus is to demonstrate how much more damage our drug policies have created than the drug use itself does, while the war on terror aspects are woven into the framework of the book as a bit of a “no-brainer.”

Trebach brings to this effort the academic rigor one would expect from a university professor, and indeed declares that he himself only came to the conclusions he has reached after expending the great deal of effort required to track down and assess all of the available data and information. He didn’t do the work as part of a quest to legalize drugs – he ended at that destination simply because of the overwhelming evidence that doing so was the only logical, practical and proper response to the facts at hand. He posits that what drives the drug war is not factual information and logical decision processes, rather, that the whole mess is the result of clinging to what he terms the “cherished myths” that have caused most citizens (not to mention the government itself) to blindly ignore all the available evidence to the contrary.

Those myths have fueled what has been termed “the drugs exception to the Constitution,” and as can be expected from a legal scholar, Trebach devotes a part of the book to exposing and decrying some of the more heinous aspects of allowing fear of drugs and drug users to form the foundation of public policy. Mandatory prison sentences for even low-level first time offenders, asset forfeitures in which a person is never even charged with a crime, and most horrifying, the practice of sending young people to military-style camps to “protect” them from drug use are just a few of the abuses taking place in the name of “fighting drugs.” Each of those abuses considered separately should be enough to increase public outcry, and when combined they would seem an absolutely impregnable indictment of the “war.” However, the most significant (and most fatal) aspect of how much impact Trebach’s book will make or not make is entirely dependent on an ironic twist in his title: distraction.

The real problem involved in drug law reform remains getting people’s attention. The reality is that, especially in America, people do not care to invest the time and attention required to actually become sufficiently indignant about the current state of affairs. The issue is compounded greatly by the (to me inexplicable) hesitancy of those involved in drug law reform to reach the conclusion that Trebach so elegantly builds the case for: complete elimination of the entire scheme. This is not an issue that we can slowly dig our way out of – not the least due to the fact that those involved in drug law reform are too cautious (I would say frightened) to say the words out loud: “legalize the drugs.”

Trebach devotes a good bit of the text calling to task the pitiful “leadership” of the self-proclaimed deacons of drug war deconstruction for failing to exhibit the necessary levels of courage and comprehension that are the clear way forward out of the morass. One notable exception is the recently formed organization LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), which is composed of the very people who were once charged with waging the war. Rather than dissembling about how “the American public isn’t ready for legalizing drugs,” or that “we can’t bite the whole thing at once, so we should try to get something like medical marijuana legal first, then we can work on recreational use,” Trebach calls a spade a spade: the bit by bit approach not only won’t lead us to where we need to go, but as he puts it – “It is the equivalent of the Abolitionist movement of the 1800s having worked not to free the slaves but to provide better housing and health care for them.”

After several decades of drug war, the time has certainly arrived for “radical” change. Perhaps the most radical of which is simply getting all of the various organizations and individuals involved in drug law reform to start working together on common goals. Bringing about the radical change of ending prohibition, however, will require gaining the attention of, and successfully motivating millions of American citizens. But the drug war isn’t exactly something that most Americans think about on a day-to-day basis. They simply have too many other things to worry about in life – which, ironically enough, is the most fatal of the many distractions keeping people from learning about, and working to destroy the nightmare we call the “War on Drugs.” Trebach has done the heavy lifting, and put it all together in an entirely readable volume. This book should enrage American citizens and propel them to demand the “radical” reforms required – but first, they’ll have to care enough to actually read it.