Drug Policy

More on Drug Czar's Bid To End War on Drugs


I have a bit of a different take than my colleague Jacob Sullum on Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske's decision to end the war rhetoric when discussing drug prohibition.

The change in rhetoric obviously isn't an end to the federal prohibition on drugs. But it isn't mere symbolism, either. Rhetoric matters.

The drug war imagery started by Nixon, subdued by Carter, then ratcheted up again in the Reagan administration (and remaining basically level since) has had significant repercussions on the way drug policy is enforced, from policymakers on down to street-level cops. It's war rhetoric that gave us the Pentagon giveaway program, where millions of pieces of surplus military equipment (such as tanks) have been transferred to local police departments. War imagery set the stage for the approximately 1,200 percent rise in the use of SWAT teams since the early 1980s, and has fostered the militaristic, "us vs. them" mentality too prevalent in too many police departments today.

War implies a threat so existential, so dire to our way of life, that we citizens should be ready to sign over some of our basic rights, be expected to make significant sacrifices, and endure collateral damage in order to defeat it. Preventing people from getting high has never represented that sort of threat.

No, a mere change in rhetoric isn't going to undo all of that. But it will at least begin to establish a less bellicose, less aggressive mindset when it comes to formulating drug policy. And while Kerlikowske's public health approach to drug enforcement is still a far cry from a government that respects individual freedom, it's also far better than the attitudes of his predecessors. We could, for example, go back to the days of William Bennett, who thought we should suspend habeas corpus for accused drug dealers, then took a sympathetic view when a caller to Larry King Live suggested we just behead them in the street.

Seems to me it's a positive and not insignificant development that we have a drug czar who understands the power of language.

NEXT: Gov. Arnold: San Quentin, I'll Sell Every Inch of You![*]

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  1. Wanna ruin this one too, Epi, you fuck?

  2. Czar oppresses peasants slightly less than predecessor, next on Eye on Moscow.

  3. What we need to do (har de fucking har) is to somehow counteract the prevailing sentiment among the police (and their legislative bosses) that their *job* is to throw people in jail.

    Exhibit A: the policy of arresting/ jailing/ destroying the lives of people who are not actually driving, for DUI. If our intent is to reduce risk, we should encourage people to take a little “time out” before driving home, rather than treating them as sitting ducks.

  4. You can try and blame me all you want, Warty, you nearsighted piece of shit, but it won’t stick.

    And Radley, I think you are being way too optimistic. It’s the attitudes of the officers on the street that matter, and Kerlikowske’s cosmetic name change won’t mean shit to them.

  5. Radley Balko,

    But it will at least begin to establish a less bellicose, less aggressive mindset when it comes to formulating drug policy.

    Not necessarily. If this becomes a more medicalized effort to squash “deviance” then that will be as problematic as any “war” has been. Indeed, taken to its limit, I can imagine under such a regime the warehousing of a lot of people in “clinics” so as to cure them. I guess I draw inspiration from Foucault’s not always lucid or correct analysis of the history of the prison, madness and sexuality.

  6. They could change the name of the War on Drugs to The Never-Ending Cavalcade of Fluffy Baby Kittens, and we’d still be fucked.

  7. While I won’t shit on Warty’s parade, at least not directly, talk, like what we’re getting from Kerlikowske, is cheap.

    Ask me again how this is going in another year or so.

  8. A name change means nothing as far as the immorality and illegality of the “war”, but it would be cool if they renamed it, “Ragnar?k.”

  9. I guess I draw inspiration from Foucault’s not always lucid or correct analysis of the history of the prison, madness and sexuality.

    Agreed. As long as we have prohibition, we have drugs as a delinquency. Medicalizing the issue just means we replace the word “punish” with “treat,” but it’s still seen as a problem to solve.

    (I both loved and hated reading Foucault in school. That was one confusing queer.)

  10. Seward,

    Other than the reference to Foucault (haven’t had the pleasure of reading his work), I am inclined to agree with your point.

    War metaphor or medical metaphor – neither viewpoint is particular good for freedom. I am open to criminalizing some of the harder drugs, but with a criminal-justice mindset, not a war or medical mindset.

  11. I agree with Radley that this exercise in semantics is somewhat encouraging. Of course, it remains to be seen if any practical differences will result from it. But hey, I’m not going to criticize Kerlikowskie’s move here.

  12. It would have been nicer to hear them keep the war rhetoric and go with, “We’ve decided to use the nuclear option in the war on drug cartels. As of tomorrow, all of their profit motives will be thoroughly destroyed by abolishing current drag laws.”

  13. even a medical mindset is better than a war mindset, people.

    I’m not down with the squishy-liberal “oh you poor baby, you have a disease!” attitude than the next red-blooded American, but from a legal POV the outcomes are much better.

  14. Name change is good. I like this name change.

  15. “The change in rhetoric obviously isn’t an end to the federal prohibition on drugs. But it isn’t mere symbolism, either. Rhetoric matters.”

    Yes. Rhetoric does matter. Like referring to tax increases as spending cuts.

  16. The sneaky thing would be to legalize… for a year or two. Just long enough to get everybody out in the open and dry up the criminal profit. Then drop the hammer on the poor fucks who bought in. Yay!

  17. Radley,

    I hope to god you are right. And maybe you are. Just as a “war” on terror was thought to justify torture, so a “war” on drugs is thought to justify all manner of things that would be unthinkable in peace time.

  18. I’m not down with the squishy-liberal “oh you poor baby, you have a disease!” attitude than the next red-blooded American, but from a legal POV the outcomes are much better.

    TAO, I’m not convinced they will be. Depends on what the “treatment” looks like, and how much violence is inflicted on the “patients.” A hospital starts to look a hell of a lot like a jail when you’re not free to go.

    The paradigm-shift makes me think of how Canadians will often (and without irony) refer to drug users as “crack victims.” They must be protected from themselves!

  19. So they’ll move, what, 60 – 70% of the current prison population in to “sanitariums” and chalk it up in the ‘win’ column?

    Tomato, tomahto.

  20. Rhetoric is important. Controlling the semantic battlefield is important to winning any argument. Whether this semantic shift indicates a softer approach from the Drug Czar is impossible to tell.

    On a related matter, how about this for a rhetorical change–Stop calling political appointees Czars.

  21. Canadians will often (and without irony) refer to drug users as “crack victims.

    I begin to understand why you left.

  22. How about a million stoners march on Washington?

  23. I begin to understand why you left.

    I know, eh? Now that we have strong weed here in the good ol’ USofA, who needs Canada?

  24. “How about a million stoners march on Washington?”

    With morsels of ten million Little Debbie brownies clinging to their lips, they will be frightening indeed.

  25. And while Kerlikowske’s public health approach to drug enforcement is still a far cry from a government that respects individual freedom, it’s also far better than the attitudes of his predecessors.

    I suppose, but this administration is proving themselves past masters at meaningless rhetoric. We’ll see.

    I also wonder if it won’t be harder, at the end of the day, to dislodge the therapeutic version of the WOD that the outright legalistic version we have now.

  26. Until and unless Charlie Lynch is pardoned, the drug war is still going on, and Obama remains a hypocrite.


  27. Why do I get the feeling this is all part of the universal health care plan? Get everyone needing “care” including the kind that insurers won’t cover like “things that are the result of illegal activity” and then everyone MUST be on the govt plan.

  28. Mad Max,

    Other than the reference to Foucault (haven’t had the pleasure of reading his work)…

    Mileage will vary when it comes to that guy. Or perhaps it would be better to say, that way lies madness. 🙂

    In other words, Foucault was often fantastically brilliant and fantastically stupid all at the same time.

  29. I can’t help but think about Dr. Szasz and his polemics against the therapeutic state.

  30. On a related matter, how about this for a rhetorical change–Stop calling political appointees Czars.

    Hah, +1.

  31. It’s not just a change of name, they want to shift to emphasizing treatment of drug problems over punishing drug use.

  32. “It’s not just a change of name, they want to shift to emphasizing treatment of drug problems over punishing drug use.”

    That may be true, but until they can accept that not all use is abuse, that is nearly as bad. I can foresee a situation where if you go to court and cry and say “I need help” you get “treatment”, but if you just say, “I like to get high” you’re screwed.

  33. Zeb,

    Totally. Laws need to catch up to science. You can be addicted to anything, and that’s a medical problem not a moral one. As Glenn Greenwald showed on his paper cited here, legalization seems to reduce drug abuse (and associated problems) since people are more likely to seek treatment if they don’t have fear of being imprisoned (and thus beaten and raped) over it.

  34. Life under the new kinder, gentler rhetorical regime…


    “Down! Down! Down on the f*cking floor, you motherf*ckers! We’re here to treat your unfortunate drug pathology! Lemme see them diseased f*cking hands!”

    BANG!BANG!BANG! “And it looks like your dog needed treatment, too!”

  35. I think the change in rhetoric is a positive first step. Think about the language of war for a second and how polarizing and absolute it is.

    In a war, the only option is victory. Anything short of that is labeled “defeat” or “Cut-and-run” or “Letting the bad guys win.”

    Innocent people are “Collateral damage.”

    Adults who use or abuse are “the enemy.”

    Funding or tactics are never questioned because “Victory” must be obtained at all costs.

    If we eliminate these terms, and the emotionally-charged baggage that goes with them, maybe we start to have a reasonable, adult conversation about drug policy in this country instead of wrapping ourselves in the flag and regurgitating tired, irrelevant rhetoric.

  36. The only change we can expect from the Obama administration is a change in semantics and rhetoric. Otherwise they are increasing spending on the drug war, escalating enforcement and militarizing the Mexican border Drug War.

    By disassociating themselves with the term ‘war on drugs’ the Obama Administration is admitting that the drug war has accumulated a top heavy load of negative political connotations that Obama does not want to be associated with. At the same time Obama’s actions, such as increasing a supplemental appropriation request by more than half a billion for Mexico, three billion dollars to reinvigorate the discredited drug task force grants, sending troops into the Afghan poppy fields to fight the Taliban, reneging on needle exchange policy and not stopping medical pot raids as promised, are all rapidly escalating and militarizing the the war on drugs policy.

    It is the height of duplicity and ultimate in cynical moral depravity for the Obama to think that they can simply change the name, re-brand the war on drugs, and everything could just continue on as normal with this four decades long undeclared civil war.

    Obama’s Quagmire on the Rio Grande

  37. “Traditionally, the debate is either interdiction, criminalization, longer prison sentences for not only dealing but users – that’s one approach,” Obama said. “The other approach would be sort of a public health, decriminalization approach. My attitude is we do have to treat this as a public health problem, and we have to have significant law enforcement.” Dallas Morning News March 15, 2009

    I made an animation to better illustrate this direct quote from President Obama. It is at my blog Aid & comfort blog

  38. This isn’t a war its a police action.

    Sound familiar?

  39. Hopefully he will start calling it “Prohibition II” or “Prohibition, the Sequel” instead. Americans love wars and want to win them, or at least spend lots of money and lives trying to. Americans hate being prohibited from doing stuff.

    People hoping to end drug prohibition should call it that too. Comparing it to alcohol Prohibition instantly conveys most of the major problems with it, at least to those who recall history somewhat. Comparing it a war makes you sound like a war protester, and that’s unAmerican!

  40. Maybe the end of the “war on drugs” is Obama’s version of Nixon’s “peace with honor”.

    We all know that the cracks in the war on some drugs wall are becoming very large, almost door sized. Relentless rhetorical hammering away with the truth will do that to anything constructed of lies and deception.

    First medical cannabis, now de-escalation of drug war rhetoric.

    Before you know it the helicopter will be leaving the embassy, just like Saigon.

  41. “BANG!BANG!BANG! “And it looks like your dog needed treatment, too!”

    You owe me a Coca Cola sir. I just spewed it.

  42. The drug war has been going on for 35 years. That means there are police and citizens who have never even been alive when there WASN’T a war on drugs. For them, this is all they know – the present fucked up situation is all they know and most people are incapable of accuarately picturing in their minds the prior non-fucked up state of things. And the war on drugs tactics have become the standard operating procedure of police training.

    Using another euphemism is far too litte, far too late to have any effect whatsoever.

  43. Only a country with a citizenry completely full of shit could have actual wars called “Police Actions” and actual police actions called “Wars”.

  44. Also, making it a medical problem changes nothing in the war on drugs. It DOES open the door to fuck people over even more for smoking cigarettes.

  45. So what does the “DRUG CZAR” want us to call it? Pogrom?

    Obama Re-branding the “War on Drugs” – Pogrom?

  46. TO: Invisible Finger | May 14, 2009, 10:34pm,

    This is, after all, the land of the free with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

  47. While we’re at it. Let’s stop referring to the leaders of various initiatives as Czars. It’s not a very good governance model, after all.

  48. Language does matter. With just a few words Obama has already gained the favor of someone who had previously been a strong opponent of the drug war….now Balko is providing cover for big increases in prohibition spending.

  49. Any effort to legislate the bounds of acceptable human behavior is doomed to fail in as much as human behavior is only modified in those that wish to comply or those that fear the consequences of not complying.

    Humans take all kinds of risks. Some risks though are seen as violating some moral boundary set upon us by the Creator while others are perceived as anything from fun to downright crazy.

    I feel personally that taking meth is as crazy as jumping out of an airplane: I won’t do either. However, I don’t care if you do as long as your doing of either doesn’t hurt me (the me being the ubiquitous “me” meaning anyone other than you).

    I could give a shit less if your actions lead to you being splatted in a crater or dead from an overdose. How you kill yourself is your business.

    Now, if drug use were completely decriminalized and not seen as moral turpitude (because perceived immorality is the real problem), there may be some cost to society. However, I think it is inarguable that there is a very high cost to society from the current plan: a plan that, despite billions spent and millions locked up, has failed to change things in a positive way.

    Who cares about labels? Why is it important to fight a “war” or try to save the morons from their own bad decisions by “treating” them? Why can’t it just be a case of a truly non-secular, non-moralistic reality where people that have reached that magic age that society deems is the point where they become responsible for their actions and the consequences of same are free to do what the fuck they want?

    If I want to sell my rectum for use as a sperm receptacle or drink myself into a stupor every night or smoke pot or commit any of myriad other “sins”, who the fuck are you (again in an all-encompassing sense) to tell me I can’t or to try and save me from myself with treatment.

    Frankly, I am tired of being told I can’t chose without approval from you. Stop telling me to live my life in a way that fits your template. Concern yourself with you and getting your own life “right” with respect to your definition.

    What is really needed here is a healthy respect by everyone for everyone else.

    Shit . . . Utopia . . . Oh well.

  50. Nixon lied about cannabis and no amount of “reform” will turn a lie into the truth. Call it the “police action” it is. Same as Vietnam, Korea and Iraq after Mission Accomplished, and no damn matter how many Kerlikowske slogans he dreams up. Its still based on a lie. The reality of any Police Action is casualties. The only difference between this and “War” is profits. You can’t “profit” on war. But you can on “Police Actions” including the very profitable, replacement for the “Cold War”.

    Police should remain neutral in political matters, paid by our taxes, consistently voting against the welfare of the citizens, for profit. Bloated budgets, forced rehab treatment, pisstastes, confiscations, forfeitures and the gargantuan police/prison industrial complex while keeping competition off the store shelves.

    Nothing fits as the title of this treason against Americans except Fraud. Incredible how we would examine every inch of a used car but let this flim flam continue. Knowing they legally LIE to maintain the “Police Action” not to protect kids any more than the school lunch scam and many other manipulations to sell “We the Peephole”. Then tax us for our own persecution.

    Same Herb and Pesticide poisons aborting bible belt babies near cotton fields are subsidiaries of the Pharmaceutical Ganja competition, used to treat the poisons. Political Science legislating drug Czar myths without the base of Physics. Can’t weigh a hobgoblin or bring it to court as evidence. Gutter Science always what will be in the future… We’ve arrested 20 million lives because of psychic soothsayers? Every accusation against Ganja is laughable and yet they continue like its on a schedule. Dragging out myth #17, higher potency.

    Czarbarry McCaffrey already tried dropping the war on drugs moniker for the same bogus reasons, pity that actual family members are being criminalized, shot and gang raped in private prisons for possessing something safer than what is available legally. Inhaling or not. Like Czarbarry Kerky is afraid of the bad publicity questioning his old reefer mad “treatment” necessity. Can’t fathom the millions of daily responsible users buying it like responsible adults. No bucks in cures or prevention, just Kooky “treatments”.

    Gateway crap or now since the “L” word poked its nose up the wingnuts are demonizing in over drive. Calvino and her girlfriend J Pee Waldo and Califonocation chicken little chickenhawks, getting tax funded and clients through the war on plants. Oh dem po kitties, we gots to save em from the heathern devil weed. A surefire Stepping Stone to Hemp Omega 3 nutrition and “narcotic” ditchweed burlap and canvas, lawrdy lawrdy. Hemp for bluejeans doesn’t require 90 million pounds of poisons as for US cotton. The Ganjawar is a defective product and its 75 years overdo for the scrap yard.

    Eradicated Marijuana Is 98 Percent Ditchweed

    More than 98 percent of all of the marijuana plants seized by law enforcement in the United States is feral hemp not cultivated cannabis.
    ~ Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA)
    Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program
    and the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics.

    “Omnivore’s Dilemma” Author Michael Pollan’s New Advice on Buying Food: “Don’t Buy Any Food You’ve Ever Seen Advertised”

    AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Obama’s organic garden, that the pesticide industry had in a memo that they shuddered when they heard her use the word?

    MICHAEL POLLAN: Yes. The Crop Life Association, the trade group of the pesticide makers, wrote her a letter, being as cordial as you must be to a First Lady, saying, you know, “You’re really casting aspersions on industrial agriculture, and we really hope you will use our crop protection products.” In other words, “Buy our poisons, whether you need them or not.”


    Switching cotton fields to hemp fields would improve: the quality of our soil, the durability of our clothes, the safety of our ground source water, the quality of our air, and the preservation of forests cut for paper (not to mention saving hundreds of thousands of lives prematurely ended by disease caused by pollution) In 1993, two hundred and fifty thousand tons of pesticides were used to grow cotton world-wide.

    These pesticides wash into streams and rivers, destroying eco-systems and poisoning human water supplies. Today the water supplies of many large cities are contaminated. Many of the vegetables we eat and clothes we wear contain pesticide residues. We must develop and utilize sustainable technologies if we want to survive and prosper in the next millenium. Hemp is a perfect sustainable raw material for thousands of products. Textiles, cosmetics, building materials, fuel and food can all be made from hemp.

    MICHAEL POLLAN: He has appointed as his number two-the woman running the Department of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan, is a proven reformer. She developed the organic program in the department and … is really committed to sustainable agriculture… She’s up against an incredible amount of opposition.

    Wall street’s Spontaneous Abortionists

    Pro Life Hell, they ain’t even anti abortion…
    The timing and types of pesticide exposures are critical determinants of reproductive outcomes, according to a recently published study by Canadian researchers. The study examined pesticide exposures based on recall by farm families and reported histories of spontaneous abortions among women living on the farms. The study found strong evidence that a woman’s exposure to pesticides in the three months prior to conception or in the month of conception significantly increased her risk of spontaneous abortion.

    MICHAEL POLLAN: Obama has a mission to make “nutrition” the watchword of the nutrition programs in the Department of Agriculture: School Lunch, Food Stamps, WIC. Now, that sounds kind of “duh,” but, in fact, those programs have nothing to do with nutrition right now. They’re essentially ways to dispose of agricultural surpluses. So if they actually raise the nutrition standards and make that the focus- the reason we have a School Lunch Program, began as an effort really to get rid of this incredible overproduction of American agriculture. I mean, we’re using our children as a disposal for excess, cheap ground beef and cheese and all these corn products… We’re using the School Lunch Program to teach them how to become fast-food consumers. So, it’s not about health, and it needs to be about health.

    Starving Babies and Illegal Food

    Humanity’s Best Single Food Source
    Of the 3 million plus edible plants that grow on earth, no other single plant source can compare with the nutritional value of hempseeds. Both the complete protein and the essential oil contained in hempseeds are in ideal ratios for human nutrition. Cannabis hempseeds contain all the essential amino acids and essential fatty acids necessary to maintain healthy human life. No other single plant source provides complete protein in such as easily digestible form, not has the oils essential to life in as perfect a ratio for human health and vitality.

  51. “Seems to me it’s a positive and not insignificant development that we have a drug czar who understands the power of language.”

    I agree that it is not insignificant.

    However, it surely is not positive that the new “drug czar” is better at using language to manipulate people or that the new preferred method of “solving drug abuse” is re-education camps. Although since rehab is supposed to be a great way to meet good drug connections without the burdens of prison – perhaps this will be an improvement for some drug users.

  52. F’reals?

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