High Anxiety


Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out, by Mike Gray, New York: Random House, 251 pages, $23.95

Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts, by Lynn Zimmer and John P. Morgan, New York: Lindesmith Center, 241 pages, $13.95 paper

Toward the end of Drug Crazy, Mike Gray takes us to the port of Los Angeles, where shipping containers from all over the world, carrying car parts, compact disc players, rattan furniture, and who knows what else, are transferred from enormous vessels to trucks. This is one of more than 300 ports of entry into the United States. "Los Angeles alone will land 130,000 containers this month," Gray writes. "Customs inspectors will examine 400. The other 129,600 will pass through without so much as a tip of the hat….The entire annual cocaine supply for the United States would fit in just thirteen of those steel boxes. A year's supply of heroin could be shipped in a single container."

The image is worth remembering the next time a politician talks about "cutting off the flow of drugs," as if the only obstacle were a lack of resolve. The chief virtue of Gray's book, which includes some firsthand reporting but relies heavily on secondary material and does not offer much in the way of fresh analysis, is his ability to succinctly and vividly communicate the futility of prohibition. A screenwriter and director by trade, Gray has an eye for dramatic juxtapositions and telling details, along with a smooth narrative style that is rarely found in books about drug policy. As a result, Drug Crazy is more accessible, though less rigorous and thorough, than the scholarly work on which Gray draws. For a general audience, it is probably also much more persuasive.

Say you want to convince someone that "source control"–a euphemism for destroying drug crops and encouraging farmers to grow something else–will never have a substantial or lasting impact on the supply of cocaine. You could cite reports from the RAND Corporation, the General Accounting Office, and congressional subcommittees. Or you could recommend Gray's sixth chapter, "The River of Money," where he observes: "The coca plant…is almost indestructible. It will grow anywhere, including the sheer face of a cliff, and it will flourish in soil too poor to support anything else. It has built-in resistance to local bugs, and unlike tomatoes, rice, or beans–which have to be reseeded each season–a single coca plant can last forty years. Instead of one or two crops a year, you can harvest coca leaves every ninety days. As a farmer-friendly shrub, about the only thing that could beat Erythroxylon coca would be a money tree."

Similarly, Gray drives home the enormous profits created by prohibition: "From farm to lab, it takes about 250 pounds of leaves, worth say $150, to make a pound of cocaine you can sell in the provincial capital for $1,500. But it is in the next step–getting it from the jungle to the streets of Cleveland–that the price takes a spectacular leap from $1,500 a pound to $15,000. This staggering profit reflects the risk involved in moving the product from factory to market." The profit margin for heroin is even bigger: "A kilo of coke worth $2,000 in Bogot√° might bring $30,000 in Los Angeles, but the identical block of heroin–only $6,000 in Colombia–could go for $100,000 up north." It is hard to see how law enforcement agencies can stand between determined criminals and this kind of business opportunity.

Gray notes the temptations they face when they try. A Chicago detective asks him to ponder a scenario: "You walk in a room–you're making forty-five thousand a year–and there's a million dollars in cash, and the guy jumps out the window. Do you chase him? Or do you figure this is far enough?"

Prohibition breeds other kinds of corruption as well. Gray rides with a group of cops who stop six black teenagers for no particular reason, verbally abuse them, search them for drugs, find nothing, and let them go. After this episode, one of the cops turns to him and asks, "So what do you think the long-term sociological implications of this shit will be?"

Gray observes assembly-line justice on the night shift at the Cook County Courthouse, where he finds that police often misrepresent the circumstances in which they find drugs so the evidence will be admitted. "They lie, so we lie," one cop tells him. A public defender notes that most of these cases involve simple possession, "so you have a cop committing a greater felony [perjury] to convict a lesser felony. It's gotta have an impact on a cop to stand up and lie on a regular basis and think nothing of it."

Gray perceptively connects these routine violations to the motivation behind the Fourth Amendment, which grew largely out of anger at heavy-handed British efforts to locate smuggled goods. "In the drug war," he writes, "we have discovered what King George understood so clearly in the 1770s: it's practically impossible to catch buyers and sellers of contraband if you stick to the rules. The illegal transfer of goods between two people who are in agreement is a tough act to interrupt."

By exploring how drug law enforcement actually works, Gray demonstrates that prohibition is self-defeating, that it cannot achieve its official goal of "a drug-free America." He also shows that many people get trampled on the road to that ever-receding utopia. But this is not enough to persuade the public that we would be better off without prohibition. To do that, you have to assuage people's fears about what the world would be like if the government stopped trying to dictate the contents of our bloodstreams.

In this task, Gray is only partly successful. He highlights the bigoted hysteria underlying the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 and the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937: the talk of "numberless dope fiends," "cocaine niggers," marijuana-crazed Mexicans, and sinister Chinese luring white women into their opium dens. He shows how drug users were dehumanized, depicted as vampires who "infected everything they touched." Heroin was said to "transform the addict into a monster who has no control over himself and is compelled to spread his disease like Count Dracula."

Gray contrasts this image with a 1914 report from the city health officer of Jacksonville, Florida, who found that "a very large proportion of the users of opiate drugs"–more than 80 percent–"were respectable hard-working individuals in all walks of life." Gray observes: "While it may seem bizarre to read that narcotics addicts can hold down jobs and be useful, productive citizens, it turns out there is no scientific evidence to the contrary. In fact, the medical literature is filled with thoroughly documented records of addicts who functioned normally throughout their lives."

On the same page, however, Gray asserts that "a junkie, though starving, will trade food for dope." Later he uncritically repeats another prohibitionist article of faith: "Crack cocaine, of course, is an unparalleled menace." Since he does not bother to explain why, readers are left to imagine the worst.

More fundamentally, Gray seems to endorse the disease model of addiction, which says drug abuse is a disorder that should be treated by medical professionals. The idea that heavy drug users suffer from a compulsive illness may encourage compassion rather than hostility, but it is not likely to reassure people who worry about the consequences of repealing prohibition. Although less sinister, the drug user as patient shares with the drug user as vampire one important characteristic: Neither can be expected to control his impulses. This assumed lack of responsibility is especially troubling when linked to Gray's suggestion that heroin "be given away to serious addicts."

Gray is more persuasive when he talks about marijuana, which he identifies as the "linchpin" of prohibition. "Take reefer out of the equation," he writes, "and the number of illegal drug users instantly drops from thirteen million to three million, and the drug war shrinks from a national crusade to a sideshow." People are often surprised to hear that marijuana is the main target of the war on drugs, accounting for more than two-fifths of drug arrests, but it could hardly be otherwise. Cannabis is by far the most widely used illegal drug: more than four times as popular as cocaine, more than 40 times as popular as heroin. Survey data indicate that about 70 million Americans, one-quarter of the population, have tried it.

The fact that so many of today's voters smoked pot when they were in high school or college creates a serious credibility problem for the government. "When they failed to experience the instant insanity that the authorities had promised," writes Gray, "it was for many an epiphany more powerful than the drug itself–the realization that the government makes stuff up….To bring these skeptics on board the war on drugs, it was necessary to convince them that the basic facts about marijuana had changed dramatically." Hence the ongoing propaganda campaign warning us that marijuana is 1) more dangerous than we used to think, or 2) more dangerous than it used to be.

In Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts, Lynn Zimmer and John P. Morgan carefully refute both of these claims. The book is divided into 20 chapters, each addressing a particular belief about marijuana illustrated by quotations from public officials or other sources sympathetic to prohibition. Zimmer, a sociologist at the City University of New York, and Morgan, a physician and professor of pharmacology at the CUNY Medical School, provide extensive references on topics such as addiction, brain function, pulmonary effects, highway safety, and marijuana use during pregnancy. Their meticulous, dispassionate, and concise summaries of the scientific literature make the book a useful primer and a valuable research guide.

Despite decades of research, Zimmer and Morgan show, there is still little evidence of significant hazards associated with moderate marijuana use. The most serious health risk of heavy marijuana smoking is probably bronchitis. Lung cancer is possible in theory, but you'd have to smoke a hell of a lot to approximate the risk faced by the typical tobacco smoker.

Zimmer and Morgan also demolish claims about marijuana's psychological effects, including "amotivational syndrome." Their critique of the "gateway theory"–the idea that marijuana use leads to the use of more dangerous drugs–is particularly incisive. Prohibitionists are fond of saying that people who smoke pot are 85 times as likely to use cocaine as people who never try marijuana, which sounds like strong evidence for the gateway theory. But as Zimmer and Morgan note, "The `risk factor' is large not because so many marijuana users experiment with cocaine, but because very few people try cocaine without trying marijuana first."

To show why it does not necessarily follow that smoking pot makes you more likely to snort cocaine, they offer an analogy: "Most people who ride a motorcycle (a fairly rare activity) have ridden a bicycle (a fairly common activity). Indeed, the prevalence of motorcycle riding among people who have never ridden a bicycle is probably extremely low. However, bicycle riding does not cause motorcycle riding, and increases in the former will not lead automatically to increases in the latter."

The book likewise makes short work of the argument that pot is more hazardous nowadays because it's much more potent than it was when Bill Clinton and Al Gore were toking up. First, claims of dramatic increases in THC content are based on faulty sampling and invalid comparisons. Second, even if average potency has risen, that would tend to reduce health risks, since people would smoke less to achieve the same effect.

Perhaps it's encouraging that defenders of prohibition are resorting to such easily refuted arguments, which are so clearly aimed at explaining away the hypocrisy of politicians who want to arrest people for doing something those lawmakers once did with impunity. The heated reaction of drug czar Barry McCaffrey and other federal officials to the medical marijuana movement–which threatens to undermine just one of the 20 myths that Zimmer and Morgan dissect–also suggests a certain desperation.

The Clinton administration's official justification for the marijuana status quo, as summed up by Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, goes like this: "Marijuana is illegal, dangerous, unhealthy, and wrong." There's no denying that first part, and Zimmer and Morgan do an admirable job of discussing just how "dangerous" and "unhealthy" marijuana really is. But what does it mean to say that a plant is "wrong"? It seems to mean that no good can possibly come of it. To admit that anyone–even a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy–could smoke pot and be better off as a result would be to admit that the federal government has been lying to the American people about marijuana for more than 60 years.

Like McCaffrey and Shalala, Gray sees medical marijuana as a grave threat to the war on drugs. "Prohibition, as a policy, can only ratchet in one direction," he writes. "Each failure must be met with more repression. Any step backward calls into question the fundamental assumption that repression is the solution….Marijuana is the pawl on the ratchet, the little catch that keeps the drum from unwinding….If somebody jiggles that pawl and the drum slips, support for the current policy will plummet like a loose cage in a mineshaft, because it cannot sustain a serious evaluation." I'm not sure he's right, but I like the metaphor.