Law in Contemporary Society

Reshaping the "War on Drugs" Narrative

Peter McWilliams Intro

Convincing the public

Using the language of war

Countering the “fear” language of drug warriors

Making drugs seem more innocuous

An economic narrative

Convincing businesses and Congress

Necessity of doing so

Necessity of identifying profit motive for businesses

Likelihood that businesses already recognize the possibility

Return to idea that convincing the public comes first

-- By TedKreit - 14 Feb 2008

Sometimes growing marijuana is a capital offense. When Judge George H. King ruled that the medical necessity defense was not available to Peter McWilliams, he handed him a death sentence. McWilliams was an AIDS patient who used medical marijuana to stifle nausea. He choked on his own vomit and died while awaiting sentencing.

Although this story would probably outrage the majority of Americans, King’s decision remains “good law” and the War on Drugs hums along. Notwithstanding policy arguments for and against the Drug War, those working to end this war need to create a new narrative.

Convincing the public

Since the government has implemented the language of war, it will be necessary for drug reformers to use the language that politicians use when they end wars. One obstacle is convincing Americans that by withdrawing from the war we do not lose. Richard Nixon trumpeted “peace with honor” in Vietnam. Drug reformers might adopt the same phrase. Today, we often hear about the “failed policy in Iraq.” This phrase suffers in its connotation of defeat. Reformers could push for a “treaty” or a “ceasefire,” but neither word inspires social cohesion the way “peace” and “honor” do.

In general, to build a consensus, drug reformers will have to use meaningless phrases. Drug warriors build their support by doing the same thing. They declare war on public enemy number one. They protect our children from drugs. By “protecting our children,” drug warriors create an “us” and a “them.” The “us” consists of all Americans who have children, a vast audience indeed. It is ineffective for a drug reformer to argue that the Drug War does more harm to children than the drugs themselves. Those statements aren’t meaningless sound bites with broad appeal. One strategy for drug reformers would be to revive Prohibition-era language and recast the war as a noble experiment. This phrase connotes good feelings while recognizing a need to end the experiment. Reformers could invoke terms like freedom, liberty or privacy, but it will be difficult to make those incantations prevail over invocations of fear.

Owing to the fear language drug warriors have adopted, reformers must present drugs as something more innocuous. One step in this process would be to publicize the fact that many successful and responsible people use and have used illegal drugs. Alcohol is considered a drug that respectable people use. Presidents can admit that they were addicted to it. Responsible people can be “social drinkers.” Making the idea of “social tokers” replace the archetype of stoner would be a step forward in eliminating marijuana laws.

The problem is that almost no successful person would want to admit that they use illegal drugs. However, things are progressing in favor of reformers as this goes. While Douglas Ginsburg lost a Supreme Court nomination 20 years ago for saying he had smoked marijuana a few times, Senator Obama can admit cocaine use today without much trouble.

  • No, not really. Obama sort-of said something about "blow" in a book he wrote long before he was running for President, and which--the New York Times insinuated in every way short of flat declarative announcement--he probably lied about so as to dramatize his alienation more, by seeming less of a goody-two-shoes than he actually was. He has not said anything about the matter, and has certainly not repeated any statement about using cocaine, since the campaign began.

Nonetheless, these are merely admissions of past use. Outside of the arts, it’s difficult to imagine anyone notable admitting that they indulge on occasion. Additionally, drug reformers could make themselves vulnerable to the charge that they glorify drug use.

An alternative narrative worth considering is one using the language of money. This story would emphasize the tax savings created by lower incarceration rates, the tax income that could be generated by sin taxes and the new jobs that would be created by new industry. Of course, the important part is not the arguments themselves, but selling them with sound bites that attract people.

Convincing businesses and Congress

  • This is your essay, not a TV commercial. Don't distract the reader.

Some of the substances Richard Nixon labeled “dangerous drugs” would present effective competitors to the substances produced by Pfizer, SABMiller and Lorillard. The resistance those companies put up to narratives characterizing Schedule I narcotics as medications or as social lubricants present a massive obstacle to drug reform, especially given that one of those companies has enough influence to get a former presidential candidate to advertise its impotence drug.

  • A non-sequitur

Drug reformers could get vital help if they convinced SABMiller that selling marijuana was a good way to expand its business, rather than a threat to alcohol’s popularity, or if they persuaded GlaxoSmithKline that they could profit by telling TV viewers to “ask your doctor if LSD is right for you.” The drug reform movement can go nowhere without lobbies, and those funded by philanthropists probably won’t suffice. It requires the assistance of businesses. Unfortunately, Anheuser-Busch would not want to be known as the company that’s trying to introduce dangerous drugs into the community. Most likely, the recreational and pharmaceutical drug industries already know that they could theoretically capitalize off of the legalization of the forbidden substances, but they balk because of negative public opinion.

  • This statement epitomizes the naivete of the presentation. If you have not recognized why the pharmaceutical companies are uninterested in distributing the traditional controlled substances, you need to invest five minutes in thought on the subject. Start by considering their relationship to patents.

Thus the problem returns to creating a new narrative to sell to the public. If drug reformers can create enough meaningless invocations to obtain wide support and overcome the drug warriors’ incantations of fear, the alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical companies might change their tune and push Congress for an end to the drug war.

  • This essay is pseudo-realism. While you dress up the points in Arnoldian commentary, you aren't actually dealing with the politics, because you haven't identified the players or their interests fully. Your outline indicates a process of declaration rather than consideration: the argument wasn't built, in the sense of created from its raw materials by cogitation. It was arranged, by establishing waypoints and then hitting them, regardless of the substantive omissions that resulted. Even the initial story with its flagrant lapse of logic (no amount of marijuana could have kept your AIDS patient from dying, while even the lesser claim that the court determined his mode of death is logically unestablished) gives the same feeling: rhetoric replacing analysis rather than intensifying it. Improvement, even radical improvement, is straightforward, I believe. You need to take a hard look at the real issues in changing drug policy, including but not limited to the public opinion issues you have identified, and leave the issue of the language about "war on drugs" (an epiphenomenon if ever there were one) far behind. You also need to identify your own issues clearly: are you really arguing that cocaine is just something to be bought at the corner store, or is this essentially a "I like pot, how come it's not legal" rant?


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r6 - 12 Jan 2009 - 23:08:17 - IanSullivan
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