Altered Minds

Former drug warriors turn against prohibition.


In the 1980s, not many people could plausibly claim stronger anti-drug credentials than Nancy Reagan. But Forest Tennant could.

"It's great for the Reagans to get up and say, 'Let's do something about the drug problem,' but I don't know who's going to do it," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. "Only true professional people like myself can do very much with the drug problem."

The remark was characteristically haughty, but Tennant had the training, experience, and reputation to back it up. A physician and researcher with a doctorate in public health, he operated a chain of drug treatment clinics in California and was widely cited and consulted as an expert on drug abuse and addiction.

Tennant has published hundreds of scientific articles, testified in high-profile trials, and advised the NFL, NASCAR, the California Highway Patrol, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The Times described him as "riding at the forefront of the current wave of anti-drug sentiment."

So when the folks at the Hoover Institution who produce the PBS show Uncommon Knowledge were looking for someone to debate drug policy with me, Tennant must have seemed like a natural choice. Imagine their surprise when he ended up agreeing that the war on drugs has been a disastrous mistake.

To be sure, Tennant is not completely comfortable with the idea of treating all psychoactive substances the way we treat alcohol. Among other things, he worries about underage access and legal liability issues.

But Tennant concedes that only a small percentage of drug users become addicted, that the drug laws are not very effective at preventing abuse, and that any increase in addiction that follows the repeal of prohibition is apt to be small. Equally important, he has come to realize after decades of dealing with addiction that the war on drugs imposes tremendous costs in exchange for its dubious benefits.

Tennant says the September 11 attacks had a big impact on his thinking about drug policy. He recognized that the connection between drugs and terrorism, cited by the government to justify the war on drugs, was actually a consequence of prohibition, which makes the drug trade a highly lucrative business and delivers it into the hands of criminals. "We've got to take the profit out of it," he says.

Tennant is also troubled by the impact that U.S. drug policy has on countries such as Colombia, where it empowers thugs and guerillas, sows violence, undermines law and order, and wreaks havoc on the economy. And he believes the war on drugs has fostered systemic corruption in the United States. "We need to try something different," he says.

As a first step, Tennant would like to see states experiment with various approaches to drug policy, including decriminalization of marijuana, a drug he considers much less dangerous than the government claims. He thinks it plausible that in 15 years Americans will be able to purchase pot legally.

This is the same man who made waves in the 1980s by promoting a home eye test kit to help parents detect and deter drug use by their children. Parents were supposed to administer the test every few days, beginning when their kids were about 7. No one could have accused Forest Tennant of being soft on drugs.

Tennant is by no means the only former drug warrior who has become a critic of current policy. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), founded last year, includes more than 400 current and former police officers, judges, federal agents, prosecutors, and parole, probation, and corrections officers. The group is headed by Jack Cole, a 26-year veteran of the New Jersey State Police who worked in narcotics enforcement for 14 years.

"After three decades of fueling the US war on drugs with over half a trillion tax dollars and increasingly punitive policies," says LEAP, "illicit drugs are easier to get, cheaper, and more potent than they were 30 years ago. While our court system is choked with ever-increasing drug prosecutions, our quadrupled prison population has made building prisons this nation's fastest growing industry…Meanwhile people are dying in our streets and drug barons grow richer than ever before. We must change these policies."

As an attorney quoted in a recent Seattle Weekly article about LEAP observed, "The news story is not that the war on drugs has failed. It's who's saying it now."