Spotlight: Waging Drug Peace


A bespectacled, salt-and-pepper-haired grandfather and American University professor of justice seems an unlikely candidate to wave the flag of truce in the government's war on drugs. Arnold S. Trebach, 59, neither uses nor encourages others to use illegal drugs, but then he isn't waging drug peace out of fear the government will win. It's losing, he says, and will inevitably lose as long as we have any semblance of a free society—but that semblance is becoming a war casualty.

Trebach is trying to rally the "loyal opposition" through his Drug Policy Foundation. His studies have led to innumerable articles, speeches, and interviews, and he has consulted for organizations ranging from British television to the CIA. "We must convince people that it is respectable, it is rational, it is decent, to oppose current drug laws," he says.

Trebach's own attitude is one of warm, fatherly solicitude toward those on both sides of the drug war. "The major thing I want to do is replace hate with love or intolerance with tolerance," he says, in the accent of his native Boston.

"The drug law does not deal with some of the major problems connected with drug abuse—crime and corruption. The law only makes the corruption worse, makes the crime worse, and does not help the simple addict," he says. "I know of no addict who has been helped by being treated as the enemy."

Yet Trebach is also sympathetic to the idealistic young drug warriors who risk their lives in a dubious cause, and his just-published book, The Great Drug War, depicts their efforts to destroy marijuana crops in northern California. At the same time, he is appalled by the threat of these military-style operations to the rights and safety of outraged citizens.

In fact, it was the combination of idealism and violence that first drew Trebach to study political science and law enforcement. "In '52, I got drafted, during the Korean mess. I just missed being in World War II by one year. Suddenly, boom—I was on the bayonet fields of Fort Dix and heard 240 nice American kids screaming, 'Kill! Kill! Kill!'"

Trying to understand the ease with which "nice American kids" could adapt to such violent attitudes, Trebach returned to school. He studied politics at Princeton, where "most of the studies of international relations were dull as dishwater." What did excite him were issues of democracy, rights, and freedom—issues that led him to study the criminal justice system.

Researching his dissertation, he says, "What appalled me was the extent to which the poor were brutalized by the police. I interviewed one black guy in prison who said, 'I thought police had a right to punch you.'"

In 1960, Trebach became chief administrator of the Justice Section of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, for whose 1961 report he was principal author. Some of his language from that report was quoted in the landmark Miranda decision in 1966. In the 1970s, Trebach recognized how the war on heroin created problems in the justice system and turned his interest from civil rights to drug law—primarily research on heroin and marijuana.

Describing himself as "old-fashioned," he opposes legalization of heroin, preferring a system of limited distribution by prescription. A "recovering tobacco addict," he'd like to see marijuana treated the same as cigarettes—with warning labels and restrictions on where it can be smoked.

He finds the public reaction to his work encouraging. "Mainly I hear from middle-America folks: a retired couple in Texas, or a retired Naval commander, and they say, 'We don't have any interest in drugs, but we don't think the country should be torn apart this way, and thank you for what you're doing.'"

Still, Trebach has had his share of nasty-grams: a couple dozen insulting or threatening communiques. In 1984, the president of American University received a telegram complaining about him: "…Close your doors immediately. Do not continue to corrupt any more American youth." Colleagues joked, but the telegram hit a sore spot with Trebach—the claim that even criticizing drug laws, much less conveying honest information about drugs, will lead young people to cavalier attitudes and addiction. Anonymous surveys of his students indicate that Trebach's courses affect the drug use of only a few—most often by discouraging it.

Throughout his career, Trebach has expressed a concern for the underdog that springs, he says, from "a real, naive belief in democracy—I really believe that stuff. I grew up in a time of anti-Semitism. But if some kid in school called me a dirty Jew, I'd punch him in the mouth and then reason with him. I had one fight a year, in the fall."

He still prefers reason to fistfights. "As a cultural matter, I think we ought to be saying to those people, person-to-person, So you take drugs—big deal. All I want to know is, Does it interfere with loving relationships? Does it interfere with your work? Does it interfere with your health? If it does, you'd better start thinking about it. All I care is that you behave all right."

John Dentinger is a free-lance writer in Los Angeles.