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Drug War Talk

By Dr. John S. Beresford

On November 5, I went to a party at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. The party was held in part to announce a political initiative in the elections next year, which if it comes off will free some of California's Drug War prisoners. Downstairs in the same hotel the State of the World Forum had its own party. The Forum is held each year in San Francisco, this year's session being the third. The Forum is an event put on by the Gorbachev Foundation, which Mikael Gorbachev established in San Francisco after his fall from power.

The next day I checked downstairs and found the discussions at the Forum to be of high quality. Half a dozen rooms were set up for as many different round-tables. Themes for discussion covered a wide variety of fields relating to today's state of the world.

The one I managed to get in to was a four-day look at "Medical Leadership and the Drug Crisis." I had a turn to speak. When my turn came, I wondered what the sense of "crisis" was. Statistics from the University of Michigan showed a rise in the consumption of alcohol and marijuana among adolescents, but that was all. There was no massive increase in the consumption of drugs generally. Prices remained stable. America did not seem to be in a drug crisis so much as on a drug plateau.

There was a crisis, though, I said, one that had not been mentioned. It had two faces. One was the militarization of the War on Drugs south of the border, where the DEA was channeling assault weapons to regimes with atrocious human rights records. If that went on, a continent would go up in flames. The other face was here, at home: America's soaring rate of imprisonment for violations of its drug laws. America has more people in prison per capita than any country on earth that keeps records-at a time when America's violent crime rate is declining.

I boiled down the talk I had prepared under six headings. The first was the sheer number of Drug War prisoners, and then the young age of so many prisoners. School-agers have gone straight from high school to 10 and 12 years in prison for growing pot. The third was the shocking length of sentences. Ten years sometimes sounds like next to nothing. Fourth, the dastardly means the drug police use to corral people into prison-methods we don't like to think of in connection with America. Then the ruinous effect on families, tearing apart relationships, the destruction of marriages, the crucially important damage to children's minds. Last, the conditions in which Drug War prisoners live, the illnesses they are exposed to, the anguish that if not squelched by Prozac leads to breakdowns and suicides. I said I thought there was plenty of scope for the country's medical leadership to make a stand.

Talking about prisoners is not easy. I felt nervous, got worked up, thought I'd made a fool of myself, though a friend in the room thought otherwise. The moderator interrupted politely when I ran overtime. The talk around the table went back to treating addicts. It was hard to know if I had made a dent. The point is, it didn't matter. No one says the Drug War crisis is easy to talk about. It is much too disturbing.

I say this in connection with last month's column, which ended with a question: Why does it have to be me that does the talking? The "me" wasn't me personally. It was the reader's me. The question was why we each are the one who has to do the talking. Why can't it be someone else?

I can think of three reasons why.

One is that if neither of us does the talking, no one else will either. Talking about prisoners, their feelings and experiences is taboo. Talking about the feelings and experiences of Drug War prisoners is doubly taboo. Breaking through a taboo means making a personal decision. No one can do it for us or tell us how.

The second reason is that if no one breaks the silence, the Drug War will get worse, hard though that is to imagine. Worse means heading in the direction of the police state that the Report of the Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York has spoken of. Americans are already half-divorced from the Constitution. Talking about the POWs, getting the truth out, is the best way we have to stop the rot. We know, and it would be foolish to pass up the opportunity.

The third reason is that we do ourselves great harm if we sit back and let the suffering of innocent people go unnoticed. Not to talk about the wrong done in the name of the War on Drugs means stifling our feelings for the sake of not making waves. It's the devil's bargain.


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