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Behind closed doors
What really went on at the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Summit of New England Governors

THE WISEST WORDS spoken at the Summit of New England Governors anti-drug meeting, held at Faneuil Hall last week, came from a famously incoherent local leader: the honorable mayor of Boston, Thomas M. Menino.

"There’s a big difference between talking about drug abuse in a conference room and talking about it on the streets with real people with real problems," noted the keeper of Boston’s keys during an introductory speech before five New England governors and President Bush’s drug czar, John Walters, at a half-day affair sponsored by the Office of the National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Perhaps the rhetoric should’ve ended there, less than 15 minutes into the proceedings, when everyone could still admit relative ignorance of the subject, shake hands, and make 12 o’clock tee times. Before an absurdly horrified Governor Mitt Romney would yelp about the "maawwnnsters" who loiter around local playgrounds handing out smiley-faced bags of high-potency heroin. Before Walters could slyly slip in what amounted to a hurrah for high-school drug testing seconds before a toilet break, a crafty tactic to avoid subsequent questioning on the issue. Before panel presentations about medical marijuana would devolve into reactionary ruminations about parenting better suited for a school-committee meeting.

It could have been worse. The ONDCP could have shut out dissenters entirely; instead, they were corralled in the back. In lieu of a medical-marijuana panel, it could’ve gathered everyone together to screen Reefer Madness and called it a day. It could’ve flown incarcerated ganja guru Tommy Chong in from California, trotted him around in cuffs as Exhibit A that pot doesn’t pay, and then flogged him before the court.

Instead, ONDCP director Walters handpicked experts like Boston Police Department (BPD) commissioner (and soon-to-be-expat) Paul Evans, US Drug Enforcement Administration administrator Karen Tandy, and Dr. Bertha Madras of Harvard Medical School to deliver spiels before five state superintendents, circumnavigating public debate or open-floor Q&A sessions.

To the ONDCP’s credit, the meeting was never advertised as an actual dialogue. A press release clearly stated that this was to be an "Anti-Drug Summit" for New England governors "to hear testimony" about substance-abuse problems facing the Northeast region. And so the governors heard vague stories of drug dealers dropping heroin into herbal tea and proffering the potion to children. They listened to a turgid harangue about how every tennis elbow shouldn’t justify a toke, nor every skinned knee a hit from the three-foot bong. They heard a pointless, misguided, and soporific infomercial about Bush’s Access to Recovery substance-abuse-treatment program that could’ve put a nail-biting, teeth-grinding crackhead to sleep.

"It was a dog-and-pony show," said Tom Angell, co-president of the University of Rhode Island’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy, who sat through the four-hour event. "The ONDCP stacks the panel and puts on a show for these governors."

And in many respects, it was a show. Handpicked experts offered statistics and relayed anecdotal evidence. They testified with their backs to the room, addressing their remarks to Walters and the governors seated on the stage, thus relegating the audience of law-enforcement officials, medical directors, and reporters to spectator roles. Here’s how the day went.

ALL THE DECISIONS surrounding the governors’ summit seemed random. Nothing like it had ever been held. Why was the drug czar coming to town? Was this part of the ONDCP’s 25-Cities Initiative, a "local approach to a national problem" engineered to target urban centers like Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta? And how was the agenda — panels on "Heroin Use in New England," the Access to Recovery program, and "Marijuana As Medicine" — determined? How were the panelists chosen?

A week before the summit, the Washington DC–based Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) issued a press release stating that it had been asking the ONDCP these same questions. "Despite the drug czar’s history of hysterical opposition to medical marijuana, we contacted his office in good faith, asking if we could suggest panelists for a balanced discussion," the release quoted Neal Levine, director of state policies for the MPP, as saying. "On September 22, we were told by ONDCP staffer Brian Ferguson that ‘the panels are pretty much set.’ We’ve made four follow-up calls to try to find out who is speaking, and none of those calls have been returned."

Indeed, a dismissive attitude permeated the ONDCP’s treatment of drug-law reformers who showed up for the conference. Program officials didn’t appear to believe that anything could be learned from them — the ONDCP’s deputy director of demand reduction, Dr. Andrea Barthwell, made this clear later on during the medical-marijuana panel — so it ignored them. Case in point: the pro-medical-marijuana faction was ghettoized in the back of the room throughout the governors’ summit, pink badges identifying them as "the opposition," while the sheriffs, doctors, and substance-abuse officials were sent to the front wearing yellow badges.

When dealing with drug-law reformers, the ONDCP oscillated between this sort of condescending ignorance and abject fear. For example, last Wednesday morning, 45 minutes before the summit’s commencement, police cars, mounted officers, and BPD Special Operations motorcycles were deployed along the cobblestone outside Faneuil Hall. Metal barricades aligned along the building’s perimeter reinforced the notion that the reformers posed a menace. This was obvious overkill, given that there were only about 10 protesters assembled, some holding signs while others disseminated National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) leaflets. Even the congenial woman at the summit’s media table smilingly compared the law-enforcement presence to "Fort Knox."

of course, like any cause, drug-law reform attracts its share of extremist freaks. And there was at least one here, a wild-eyed, orange-haired man named Lawrence McKinney, who argued aggressively with someone whose badge identified him as Dr. Norman Wetteran from New York. Marijuana isn’t bad, ranted McKinney — he’d gotten through school smoking it. Marijuana is fine. And "we don’t have a heroin epidemic" — OxyContin is a much worse problem. Wetteran countered with undecipherable verse from the Old Testament, then politely tried to walk away. McKinney called after him: "See, your types always run away from an argument."

Soon after, an American flag wobbled into the hall — an older woman decked out in a shiny red-white-and-blue-sequined cap, a star-spangled jacket, a denim skirt, white tennis shoes, and a red handbag. The woman’s name, according to her business card, was J. Magic Black-Ferguson, and she’d come to represent "Grammas for Ganja," a nonprofit whose name pretty much says it all.

"You’re all dressed up today," seethed McKinney.

"Yes, I am," Black-Ferguson retorted. "You like it?"

"You hurt your cause so badly."

"No, no, it doesn’t," Black-Ferguson clucked, sitting down in the pro-pot ghetto. Apparently offended, she looked away from McKinney, striking up a conversation with the woman next to her, who wore a red button shaped like a stop sign that screamed STOP ARRESTING PATIENTS.

The drug czar wants you to think that all drug-law reformers are like this. They’re not. Articulate, well-scrubbed, pro-medical-marijuana advocates like Tom Angell, Rick Doblin, and Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts director Fatema Gunja were also on hand at the summit. But these ONDCP-sponsored events like to conjure up a weird alternate reality where sensible, thoughtful drug-law reformers don’t exist, where narcotics aren’t a staple of American pop culture, where movies like Half Baked and How High never get made, where politicians admitting that they’ve experimented with drugs and turned out just fine are abnormal. Before the governors’ summit began, Johnny Cash’s rendition of the Tom Petty tune "I Won’t Back Down" could be heard over the sound system. Of course, Petty is a self-avowed pothead whose 1995 hit "You Don’t Know How It Feels" features the chorus "Let’s roll another joint." As for Cash, half of his recent obituaries mentioned his past drug dependence. It was unclear whether anyone realized the significance of the music; in any case, the song abruptly stopped halfway through.

Obviously, you don’t have to wear your narcotic allegiances on your sleeve to have indulged in some grass in your lifetime. Trying to guess how many of the suited schmoozers in the yellow-nametagged crowd had puff-puff-passed in their day was like trying to figure out how many wedding guests have bedded someone in the room other than their dates. Thirty percent? Maybe 40 or 50? The woman wearing a fuchsia suit with an enormous anti-pot pin affixed to her lapel? Nope. The hip-looking, gray-suited director of alternative medicine? More than likely.

Governor Mitt Romney alluded to this during his introductory remarks. "Marijuana for the people in this room — from your memory perhaps of the ’60s and ’70s — is not the marijuana of today." (Translation: we all know many of you smoked a joint or two listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in your best friend’s basement, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about today.) "This is not the drug that your parents, or you yourself, were familiar with around your peers. This is instead a very dangerous and addictive drug, and kids are being hooked on it."

Listening to Romney discuss drugs is downright comical, like watching a nun give a talk on harlotry. "The marijuana in the ’60s and ’70s was one percent THC" — he paused to sputter an improvised definition of tetrahydrocannabinol that anyone armed with an encyclopedia would dispute — "the addictive and hallucinogenic, ah, ah, feature, of, eh, that drug." (Hallucinogenic? Try "psychoactive," which doesn’t mean the same thing at all.) Again Romney hesitated, this time to locate his place in his notes, since numbers make it easiest for a man who doesn’t quaff coffee to natter about wacky tobacky. "[THC] is now nine or 10 percent and can be purchased as high as 20 to 30 percent. It is far more addictive, far more compelling, far more compulsive." (Later, attendee Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and a widely known psychedelic-drug researcher with a PhD from the Kennedy School of Government, disputed Romney’s allegation: "Those claims that the hippies mostly smoked pot with one or two percent THC are false," he said. "There’s always been hash. There’s always been high-potency pot.")

Hearing Governor Romney trip over the definition of THC reinforced Menino’s earlier line about the importance of actual experience. With the exception of the heroin-epidemic panelists — the DEA’s Tandy, Commissioner Evans, and registered nurse Janice Kauffman, president of the American Association Treatment of Opioid Dependence (AATOD); — most of the summit’s rhetoricians suffered from a kind of six-degrees-of-separation removal from the issues. In Romney’s introduction, he tried to suggest that the stereotypes don’t apply to heroin users ("We identify heroin associated with junkies, people on skid row, people shooting up in corners"), but his tone sounded uncertain, as though he’d plucked his examples from the movies. Then he tried to imagine the decision children face in a world where heroin fixes cost four bucks: "A Häagen-Dazs ice-cream cone or a hit of heroin?"

Next up at the podium: ONDCP director John Walters, who thanked the five New England governors for coming (New Hampshire governor Craig Benson had to attend a previously scheduled Governor’s Executive Council meeting). Walters drew attention to the setting in Faneuil Hall, the symbolic "cradle of liberty," and noted that there was no better place for the summit than "a place widely associated with public debate and discussion." No mention that this particular debate would be closed.

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Issue Date: October 17 - 23, 2003
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