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NO LAUGHING MATTER
Recently, the Boston Phoenix sent three writers to cover the New England governors’ drug summit at Faneuil Hall, organized by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Their stories were collectively headlined, DRUGS: WHY CAN’T POLITICIANS FACE FACTS? [see " Behind Closed Doors, " " Baby Talk, " and " Snake-Oil Salesmen, " News and Features, October 17].
I have participated in numerous such events. From 1979 to 1989, I was counsel to the US House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary. In 1988, I helped write the legislation creating the ONDCP. I have set up or attended at least 100 congressional anti-drug hearings or events over the years. Unfortunately, your front-page headline offers a generally well-founded lament. And the causes of our politicians’ disconnect from the reality of drug use and the consequences of drug policy must be identified if we are to get beyond the policy failures in which we are mired.
First, it does not seem that those politicians who do face facts are made to suffer for it — at least by their constituencies. US Representative Barney Frank (D-MA), for example, is well known for having sponsored medical-marijuana legislation, and has in no way been punished by his constituents. Similarly, here in Maryland, State Delegate Don Murphy (R), representing a conservative district, sponsored our state medical-marijuana bill, but never faced electoral jeopardy. In fact, a Republican state senator here, Tim Ferguson, was targeted and defeated in the Republican primary for casting the decisive vote against medical marijuana in committee.
But Murphy’s experience illustrates a very important factor. Once Murphy sponsored the bill, he became the butt of jokes among his legislative colleagues: " What’s that smell? " " Can you get me something? " A politician who faces facts and questions current drug policy risks becoming the object of constant ridicule. The news media — with a few notable exceptions — are equally to blame. Pun-filled headlines, sly references to drug use, and sloppy reporting are the rule when the subject is illegal drugs. In a typical story about the introduction of a medical-marijuana bill, the lead and succeeding paragraphs make jokes and cute observations about the clothing, hairstyles, audience, music, etc. at a pro-medical-marijuana event. These cheap attempts denigrate the seriousness of the legislation.
Ultimately, politicians’ unwillingness to face the facts about illegal drugs stems from fear of losing legitimacy, not fear of electoral defeat or challenge. Driving this fear is the seemingly irresistible compulsion of the nation’s editors and reporters to turn to journalistic clichés about pot when writing about drug-policy reform.
If the nation thinks the problems of drug abuse are serious, then we must stop sacrificing serious discussion of the alternatives for the cheap laughs of old and not-very-funny pot jokes.
Eric E. Sterling
Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
Silver Spring, Maryland
Due to an error in copyediting, we misspelled the name of Mariano Quezada, one of the people featured in our profiles of legal immigrants denied Medicaid coverage ( " Faces of Denial, " News and Features, November 14). The Phoenix regrets the error.