Knowledge Control

"Doing heroin isn’t as scandalous as writing about it," observes Ann Marlowe in her memoir Stopping Time: Heroin From A to Z. Marlowe is recalling the angry letters she received from readers who worried that an article she had written might encourage people to use heroin.

However scandalous it may be, writing about heroin, unlike using it, is not illegal. But a bill known as the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act could change that.

MAPA, which was unanimously approved by the Senate in November, is being considered by the House Judiciary Committee. Among other things, the House version would make it a federal offense, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, "to distribute by any means information pertaining to, in whole or in part, the manufacture or use of a controlled substance" if one intends or knows that the information will "be used for, or in furtherance of, an activity that constitutes a Federal crime."

The intent or knowledge requirement might let someone like Marlowe off the hook. Likewise, a big bookseller such as Amazon could argue that it offers guides for growing pot and synthesizing psychedelics not to encourage those activities but simply to satisfy its customers’ curiosity.

Loompanics Unlimited, which specializes in fringe titles like Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture and Opium for the Masses, would have a harder time mounting that defense. So would the authors of such books.

MAPA presumably would put an end to magazines like High Times, which celebrates marijuana culture, publishes growing tips, advertises drug paraphernalia, and, not incidentally, assails the war on drugs. Web sites that discuss the medical benefits of marijuana or offer advice for reducing the risks of drug use (say, by sterilizing needles or using vaporizers) would also be in trouble, especially if they link to sites that sell drug-related items. Such links are themselves forbidden by the bill.

No one can say for sure how the law would be applied--who would be prosecuted and who would be able to offer a successful defense. But that is precisely the point: By its very existence, such a law would discourage controversial speech about drugs.

The response to such criticism from MAPA’s House sponsor, Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), is either dense or disingenuous. "We don’t want to beat on anyone’s rights to things like free speech, but we do want to make it clear that illicit drugs are a scourge to society," Cannon’s legislative director recently told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Recipes for a drug as dangerous as methamphetamine shouldn’t be available to everyone to produce in their garage or basement."

Got that? Cannon doesn’t want to abridge freedom of speech; he just wants to censor dangerous information.

It’s disturbing that a piece of legislation like this one could sail through the Senate without a peep about the First Amendment. But it’s not surprising that drug control has evolved into knowledge control.

After all, "a drug-free America," a goal repeatedly endorsed by Congress, is a totalitarian fantasy. Those who seek to achieve it are naturally driven to totalitarian means.

Censorship is not the only threat. Another MAPA provision authorizes "sneak and peek" searches of people’s homes. Federal agents could execute a search without notice and make copies of papers or computer files without furnishing a list of what they took.

Meanwhile, a combination of government mandates and corporate eagerness to enlist in the war on drugs has made our very bodies increasingly subject to searches aimed at determining if we have violated any pharmacological taboos. Glancing at a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece in which criminologist James Q. Wilson said we ought to "reduce [drug] demand through mandatory testing," I thought for a moment that he meant every American should be forced to urinate into a cup.

It turned out that Wilson was talking about expanding the use of drug testing in the criminal justice system, something Al Gore endorsed last month. Under Gore’s plan, The New York Times reported, "inmates in state prisons...would not be released until they could pass drug tests."

Notice what this proposal concedes: Even in the regimented conditions of prison, drug use persists. Following the drug warriors’ vision of regulated reading material and unannounced searches won’t stop people from using politically incorrect chemicals to alter their consciousness. But it will make our society more like a prison.

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