A damning case against failed and phony drug war

When medical marijuana became legal in the state of California, I went out and got some. I say this not because I am cool, or like to get stoned — I’m not, and I don’t.

My hard drugs of choice are yerba mate, Famous Grouse and red wine. But within me there lives an inner Ron Paul, a cranky conservative libertarian who wants government just to lay off. That voice has long told me that one of the most foolish, destructive wars we have engaged in as a nation — among many — is the War on Drugs.

So one fine spring morning several years ago, hoping to do my small part for the cause, I headed to the Venice Boardwalk in search of a doctor.

A damning case against failed — and phony — drug war

The dispensary I chose was on the second floor of a two-story converted beach house. The waiting room of the clinic was filled with some of the healthiest young people I have ever seen — shirtless blond men with surfer bodies, young women overqualified for the cover of Shape magazine. We all sat with clipboards, filling out our medical histories, indicating our specific ailments.

I checked the box marked “back pain,” because, well, who doesn’t get a little twinge now and then?

The nurse explained that they only took cash and that an ATM (service fee $4) was located in the lobby. She then took me to meet the doctor. His nameplate said Dr. Christian Weinberg. He wore dirty white scrubs, white socks and sandals. He asked me to take a seat at his desk, flipped his laptop so the screen partially faced me and said, “You gotta see this.”

It was the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” about an African tribe thrown into turmoil by the discovery of a Coke bottle.

“Yes,” I said. “Great movie.”

We both watched for a good five minutes, until Weinberg glanced over my form. He asked me if I’d tried other treatments for my back pain. As he asked, he stared me in the eyes and nodded his head slowly up and down.

Following his cue, I said, “Yes.”

He asked me if anything had worked. He shook his head from side to side.

“No,” I said.

“Have you tried marijuana at some point in the past?” he asked.

“No,” I started to say but saw him nodding this time, so I said, “N-n-yes?”

“And it helped?”

Now I caught on. “Oh, yes,” I said, watching him nod vigorously. “It saved my life.”

“Excellent!” The doctor signed my form, shook my hand and returned to the movie. The nurse met me in the hallway and escorted me to the dispensary, a pot-choked room with rows and rows of brown glass bottles and a TV screen with prices for medicines with names like “Cherry Bomb” and “Venice Skunk.”

Since that time, critics of the medical marijuana law have cited its rampant abuse, while defenders have raised incontrovertible evidence that pot really does have significant medical uses and should be legally available to those who need it.

But this debate is really just a sideshow in the ongoing debacle known as the War on Drugs.

I reflected on my own small attempt to join the front lines, legally, when I watched the documentary “The House I Live In,” at an April 5 screening. The movie won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and its director, Eugene Jarecki, was in L.A. to drum up support for changing drug laws.

You are going to hear about this movie. It is a powerful piece of agitprop, and the case it lays out against the drug war is damning.

As the film reports, President Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs in 1971. Some 40 years and 44 million arrests later, Jarecki says in his spare and moving narration, we’ve lost more than a trillion dollars, and yet drugs are more available than ever before, sold by younger and younger kids, and the purity level is higher.

The United States has become the world’s largest jailer, with 2.3 million people behind bars, five times the rate of other developed countries. Between a quarter and a third of those in jail right now are there for drug crimes.

The war’s ultimate cost are the thousands of lives, the vast human potential, destroyed through severe sentencing, civil-asset forfeiture and lack of rehabilitation opportunities. The film indicts every president since Nixon, including Barack Obama, for failing to reverse a failed and unjust set of policies.

It’s not a perfect movie. Jarecki offers us no responsible opposing points of view — a pet peeve of mine. More foolishly, Jarecki, whose family escaped from Nazi Europe, makes the dubious choice to compare America’s history of draconian drug policies to the Holocaust. That ridiculous comparison undoubtedly will pull focus from the serious indictments the film makes. But these weaknesses shouldn’t damn the facts and stories he presents.

Following the screening, several experts, including former law enforcement officials who now are part of the Drug Policy Alliance, spoke in favor of smarter drug laws. Despite Obama, the tide is turning, they say, as Americans of all political stripes see the true costs of this phony war.

“So many officials know this is the right thing to do,” said professor Michael Romano, of Stanford University’s Three Strikes Project.

The gods may be crazy, but must we be?

Rob Eshman is the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, where this piece first appeared.

Rob Eshman
Rob Eshman

Rob Eshman is national editor of the Forward. Follow him @foodaism.