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US: Opposing Camps Square Off at Congressional Hearing About Drug Legalization


Newshawk: Nathan Riley
Pubdate: Sun, 20 June 1999
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 1999 The New York Times Company
Contact: letters[at]
Author: Christopher Wren
Note: The testimony is at:


WASHINGTON -- Congress seldom meets a hearing that it doesn't like, but the one that Rep.  John L.  Mica, R-Fla., convened on Wednesday raised quite a few hackles. 

Its topic: "The Pros and Cons of Drug Legalization, Decriminalization and Harm Reduction."

The hearing, the first on the subject since 1988, was motivated by suspicions on Capitol Hill that legalization of drugs is the ultimate goal of people who actively promote marijuana as a medicinal palliative or advocate giving sterile syringes to heroin addicts to prevent them from contracting AIDS. 

The hearing illustrated Congress' reluctance to rethink the war against drugs, on which the federal government spends nearly $18 billion a year.  And it presaged the sort of discourse about drugs bound to surface in next year's election campaign. 

"It's a politically risk-free area," said Eric E.  Sterling, a former counsel to the House Judiciary Committee who helped draft the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts passed in 1986 and 1988.  Sterling, who is president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, attended the hearing. 

"No member of Congress is going to lose a vote because they're tough on drugs," he said.  "And it attracts media attention.  I suspect pollsters would tell members of Congress that this is a very good area to be outspoken in."

The hearing itself drew protests from opposing camps. 

"We do not have hearings called 'The Pros and Cons of Rape,"' said Rep.  Mark Souder, R-Ind., who is on the subcommittee. 

And Ethan A.  Nadelmann, the director of the Lindesmith Center, a New York-based group working to change drug policy, dismissed the hearing as "an effort to smear the many moderate proposals for drug-policy reform with the broad and false brush of radical legalization."

The hearing was largely prompted by voter initiatives to approve medicinal marijuana in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Nevada Washington and the District of Columbia.  The initiatives were financed in part by the billionaire investor George Soros, who has also reportedly contributed about $10 million to the Lindesmith Center and the Drug Policy Foundation, two groups spearheading the effort to change the way that Americans view illegal drugs. 

"There was a feeling that one side was doing all the talking and there really needed to be a congressional response to this," said Bobby Charles, the chief counsel for the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, which held the hearing. 

Gen.  Barry R.  McCaffrey, the retired general who is the White House's national director of drug control policy, put it more bluntly.  "We're getting rolled in the public arena by very clever people," he told the subcommittee. 

In his testimony, McCaffrey described a campaign of deception and half-truths to erode society's disapproval of marijuana and harder drugs, to which 4.1 million Americans are now addicted.  While 82 percent of the public oppose making illicit drugs legal, he said, there is "a carefully camouflaged, well-funded, tightly knit core of people whose goal is to legalize drugs in the United States."

Nadelmann did not attend the hearing, contending that the subcommittee had disinvited him.  "They might have held hearings on whether current federal drug policies are doing more harm than good," he said.  "Instead, they decided to hold a hearing on the 'drug legalization movement,' which is essentially a figment of their imagination."

Charles said none of the subcommittee members wanted to legalize drugs themselves.  But Mica, he said, believed "that an open and honest debate only serves the cause of truth."

Other subcommittee members expressed unhappiness that the hearing was even taking place. 

"Legalization is a surrender to despair," said Rep.  Benjamin A.  Gilman, Republican of upstate New York.  "It cannot and ought not be any topic of serious discussion in our nation's debate of the challenges of illicit drugs."

Suggesting the depth of hostility toward the notion of legal drugs, Rep.  Bob Barr, R-Ga., asked whether anti-racketeering laws could be used to prosecute people conspiring to legalize drugs.  McCaffrey shot back that doing so "would have a chilling effect on the right of free speech."

McCaffrey assured the subcommittee that "I am not open-minded about drug abuse in America." But afterwards, he said he wished that there had been a fuller exposition of the legalization argument.  "I want people to come out and say what they believe, and be subject to cross-examination," he said. 

Ira Glasser, who testified before the subcommittee as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said, "I think they are engaged in an effort to discredit and attack and intimidate people who disagree with them." Glasser, who is also president of the Drug Policy Foundation, said in his testimony, "The government has demonized all drug use without differentiation, has systematically and hysterically resisted science and has turned millions of stable and productive citizens into criminals."

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which wants marijuana legally available, said they were excluded.  Charles said there was not enough room for everyone.  "I think there will be future hearings," he said. 

Nadelmann was one of several people whom McCaffrey accused of advocating drug legalization.  McCaffrey quoted Nadelmann as having said in 1990, "Personally, when I talk about legalization, I mean three things: the first is to make drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin legal." The rest of Nadelmann's sentence, which was omitted at the hearing, said " ...  under fairly restricted conditions, but not as restricted as today."

Nadelmann said he was quoted out of context.  "My secret agenda is not the legalization of drugs," he said.  "It's the creation of a drug policy based upon common sense, science, public health and human rights."

Two Democrats, Rep.  Elijah E.  Cummings of Maryland and Edolphus Towns of Brooklyn, urged their subcommittee colleagues to consider helping the victims of drug abuse. 

"The solution is that we have a humane society so people don't grow up feeling they have to do these things," Cummings said.  "And when they do these things, they need appropriate treatment."

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