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April2, 2004 - The National Post (Canada)

Censoring The Truth In The War On Drugs

By Jonathan Kay

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

WASHINGTON - Like most cities, Washington relies on advertising to keep its mass transit system solvent. Get on the subway, and you'll see ads for everything under the sun. Or just about. But there's one thing you won't see -- in fact, can't see: any political message criticizing the U.S. war on drugs.

It's shocking that such a crude censorship policy would be encoded in U.S. federal law. Yet it is. In January, Congress passed a spending bill that makes it illegal for local transit authorities that accept federal aid to run ads critical of America's draconian drug policies.

And since D.C. depends on the feds' annual infusion to keep its trains running, the city has little say in the matter. In February, a coalition of drug reform groups submitted an ad arguing that "marijuana laws waste billions of taxpayer dollars to lock up non-violent Americans." It was rejected.

Sanity may ultimately prevail: On April 29, the ad's sponsors will appear in court to challenge the constitutionality of the new censorship policy. And I have enough faith in the U.S. court system to believe they will win.

But however this shakes out, the episode says a lot about the war on drugs. Decades spent focusing on criminalizing supply instead of treating demand have produced nothing but failure. And notwithstanding bravado exuded by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, everyone in Washington knows it. The surest sign of a policy failure is when government uses its bully power to shut up everyone who points it out.

The situation in Washington also says a lot about how the war on drugs has eroded core U.S. principles. Speech is freer in the United States than in any nation on Earth: For years, Canadian academics and journalists have gazed longingly southward as we bemoaned our own censorious human rights commissions and hate speech laws.

Yet here we have a collection of advocacy groups that seek to criticize a policy of the U.S. government in a public space -- exactly the sort of core political communication the First Amendment is supposed to protect -- and it is being censored because Congress is embarrassed by the specific viewpoint espoused.

Liberals have long criticized the U.S. war on drugs -- especially laws that doom small-time street peddlers to decades in jail for selling small amounts of cocaine or marijuana. But it astounds me that even conservatives can stomach it.

Free speech aside, what about the autonomy of local governments and states' rights? In California, residents have been trying for years to put medicinal marijuana in the hands of sick people. But they've been stymied by federal officials who insist the war on drugs trumps local law.

As many letter writers noticed last week, I'm hardly a pure libertarian. (Urging higher gas taxes to discourage driving, I wrote that "sometimes, you need the law to enforce behaviour that everyone knows is right, but which none of us have the discipline to implement.")

And I would have no problem with the war on drugs if -- like the war on terror, which also encroaches on civil liberties -- the benefits outweighed the costs. But they don't: The benefits are small, while the costs are huge.

Those costs include not only censorship, but also hundreds of thousands of people in jail, a profitable contraband industry in Afghanistan and Columbia that funds two different terrorist armies, not to mention tens of billions of dollars spent on domestic enforcement that might be far better spent on treatment.

As the ACLU likes to point out -- when it's not being muzzled -- 700,000 Americans were arrested last year for offences related to marijuana, a non-addictive substance less dangerous on balance than tobacco or alcohol.

There is some progress being made in the fight to reduce drug usage. But it is not because of the quasi-military campaign against suppliers: Drugs are cheaper than ever. It is because the post-crack-boom generation knows that addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin can ruin your life.

The bottom line is that drugs should be treated as a health issue, not the target of a military campaign, and it's nice to know that I live in a country where admitting as much isn't the object of government censorship.

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