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Behind closed doors (continued)

THE MOST EVENHANDED discussion of the day focused on New England’s heroin epidemic. According to the DEA’s Tandy, "You might as well be sitting at the border of Colombia in this Northeast region." She told the audience that the heroin in the Northeast originates from Ecuador, Panama, and the Dominican Republic, that dealers have created a heroin market here by offering free samples to hook customers, and that they’re branding their wares "with such beautiful logos as frogs, Martians, and the Playboy bunny."

Next, Janice Kauffman, the registered nurse from AATOD, spoke, emphasizing the need to get addicts into treatment facilities. She underscored that drug problems don’t discriminate: "It occurs in all geographic locations, all ages, all economic groups, all racial and ethnic groups." She released a flood of compelling statistics: in Massachusetts, more than 50 percent of patients admitted for substance-abuse treatment suffered primarily from heroin dependency; in Connecticut and Rhode Island, over 35 percent. Drug-related emergency-room visits for heroin in Massachusetts have risen 60 percent each year since 1998. Evans spoke next, mentioning the efforts of drug investigators and social workers in South Boston; soon after, Romney relayed how "shocked" he was to hear about the "maawwnnnsters" who prey on our children.

Then, with all this still fresh in the audience’s heads, and just before a 10-minute break, Walters dropped a stink bomb: a pitch for school-based drug testing as a deterrent to adolescent drug abuse. He called it "a silver bullet," and tried to make it sound innocuous by comparing it to tuberculosis testing. He offered no statistics or evidence, simply saying that students "feel protected when they’re tested." He didn’t even attempt to spin a Chicken Soup for the Soul–style yarn about a teenager whose life was saved by mandatory drug testing. He just let it drop, and then the audience filed out to use the bathrooms.

"There was no discussion of civil rights or thought that this might be an intrusion into private lives," Rick Doblin said later. "In some ways, I found it Orwellian."

THE ACCESS to Recovery panel was as exciting as drywall. Dr. Tom Kirk, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, spoke about the program’s system of state-issued vouchers to pay for substance-abuse treatment, using phrases that mean nothing without specifics: "spiritual resources," "case management," "peer support," "resources and empowerment."

He was followed by someone even more narcotic: Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Bertha Madras, whose soothing voice evoked a recorded guide on a Disney World ride. She talked about how drugs don’t discriminate, complained that the media have been an obstacle to drug education, and emphasized drug education as a deterrent to drug abuse.

Meanwhile, Connecticut governor John Rowland scribbled on a piece of paper. Vermont governor James Douglas tilted his head back as though sleeping in a car. Maine governor John Baldacci — who seemed like he’d ordinarily be a gas over a pitcher of beer and a pizza — rested his head in his hand. Romney feigned interest, his lips in a half-smile, and stared at the speaker. Rhode Island governor Donald Carcieri simply looked bored.

A Boston Globe reporter found David Denby’s Mystic River review in the New Yorker and dug in.

Even John Walters rubbed his chin lazily.

Eventually, Madras stopped talking. But not before she plugged her CD-ROM, available at the back of the room free of charge.

By then, the Globe reporter had moved on to a profile of Hillary Clinton.

THE REAL ACTION took place at the medical-marijuana panel. It was the most blustery, the most authoritarian, and the most ignorant. It should have been interesting, given that Maine has already passed legislation allowing qualifying patients access to small amounts of marijuana. But this wasn’t really discussed. Instead, the panel regressed into something akin to a suburban-school-committee meeting.

ONDCP martinet Dr. Andrea Barthwell kicked off the panel by declaring medical marijuana a "Trojan-horse issue." She denounced it as "the worst scam the drug legalizers have perpetrated" and warned of the "great danger posed by frauds in white coats." She said this very sternly. She wondered aloud, "Is this the best that 21st-century medicine has to offer?" The basic gist of her tirade was: science hasn’t yet proven that marijuana is medicine; we’d be setting science back to look to plants; states will face more problems from both limit-testing defense attorneys and, implicitly, the federal government if they try to be different on this issue, so they may as well conform. Then she cited some anecdotal "evidence" from her 20 years as a physician in Illinois, where she worked with kids who said that "marijuana is medicine and therefore thought it was good for them." She concluded by saying, "But marijuana is not medicine." (See "Snake-Oil Salesmen," page 30.)

The pro-medical-marijuana faction hissed.

The Globe reporter scanned an R. Crumb cartoon about New York’s Fashion Week.

The next speaker immediately contradicted Barthwell. Dr. Billy Martin, chair of the department of pharmacology and toxicology at Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical school, said that yes, marijuana has helped patients, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that marijuana needs further research before doctors start prescribing it to patients. "So we have a choice," Martin said. "And I think it’s a simple one. Do we want to devote resources, do we want to try to answer this question, does it have a role in medicine?"

Dr. Mark Kraus, president of the Connecticut Society of Addiction Medicine, returned to Barthwell territory: "The campaign to legalize marijuana is a campaign that in New England and other parts of the country is a campaign of self-serving political propaganda, misinformation, and deception. It must stop."

When the panelists opened themselves up to questions, Governor Rowland nearly tripped over himself trying to commend their efforts. "I think the panel hit the issue out of the ballpark." Their home-run, according to Rowland? They helped show that "reporting mixed messages is a mistake."

Romney, for his part, asked some very levelheaded questions. Why don’t we treat marijuana like a prescription drug? Wouldn't it be appropriate to subject marijuana to these same processes? What is the process? And why don’t we treat this like a pharmaceutical?

The pro-medical-marijuana advocates clapped.

Startled, he immediately clarified himself: "This isn’t an advocacy position." Which may be true. But Romney’s questions are the same types of questions advocates ask. Over and over. And so — even though the panel chose to answer his questions by focusing on who would fund the research — he gave the advocates a glimmer of hope.

DURING the press conference held after the summit, each governor delivered a post-event briefing. Thank you for bringing this to our attention, the governors said. This is a serious problem and we must make changes, they added. We’re so thankful that this gathering has brought our regional drug problem to the forefront of issues, they reiterated.

Then Dr. Barthwell opened the floor to questions.

A female reporter piped up first. "Two questions for Governor Romney. First, Governor Romney, do you support school drug testing? And second, have you made a bet with Governor Pataki about the Red Sox–Yankees series?"

Romney grinned puckishly, explaining that he’d already chatted with Pataki. "I suggested that the governor be required to ride a horse through the Boston Garden" — it was unclear whether he meant the Boston Common, the Public Garden, or the FleetCenter, but very clear why the details of his Massachusetts residency were an issue during his campaign — "because of the term ‘cowboy up.’ " Romney proceeded to explain that the prize hadn’t been set, but that the bet would be confirmed by the end of the day.

Oh, and drugs. "Your first question was about testing in schools," Romney remembered. "I haven’t formed an opinion on that."

"Governor Romney," interjected another reporter, who hadn’t been sighted at the summit. "Some local politicians had been given access to Red Sox tickets which are pretty hard to come by; on top of that, they’re getting them for face value. Even though it’s legal, do you think this is fair?"

"People can make their own decisions," Romney smirked, drawing a laugh from the press corps. "I’m not going to be casting dispersions [sic] on anyone else who takes advantage of that feature, but I personally am not."

Then political commentator Jon Keller, who hadn’t been spotted at the summit either, asked about the California recall election. The governors looked uneasy, though a couple addressed the issue noncommittally. Keller followed up, his relentless prodding even getting a hesitant Democrat, Maine governor Baldacci, to take the podium begrudgingly and address what the recall election meant.

Nearly 15 minutes into the press conference, someone finally called out, "Do you think we can have Walters up here for some questions about drugs?" Walters ascended the podium and repeated his pitch for school-based drug testing, suggesting that in communities where it has been implemented, students are "less afraid."

But the most vital questions remained unasked. Will drug abuse really come to the forefront of local issues? Or was the ONDCP’s summit merely four hours of furrowed brows and theatrical bluster designed to grab a day’s worth of front-page headlines, put a bug in New England’s ear about high-school drug testing, and issue a stern warning to governors about following federal law concerning medical marijuana?

"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," said Mayor Menino before it all began. The fact that most of the people making decisions are a million miles away from the problems they’re forced to confront seemed to be a minor technicality.

Camille Dodero can be reached at cdodero[a]

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Issue Date: October 17 - 23, 2003
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