War All the Time

I once rented an apartment in Linden Hills, kitty corner from a church. This guy in my brownstone sold some mean weed. Homegrown, the kind of stuff that could get you chatting with God in the church parking lot.

A few years ago, I bought a house in the Central neighborhood of Minneapolis, kitty corner from a church. This guy down the street sells crack. I'm pretty sure it's not homegrown.

Last Wednesday evening, while I was sitting on the porch sipping a glass of wine, a guy in a suburban-looking Suburban and a guy in an urban-looking beater pulled up in front of my crack-dealing neighbor's house to swap an envelope of cash for a small baggie of white powder. I was outraged. I uncorked another bottle of red and ranted loudly about inner-city decay. "It's time to move!" I proclaimed. My partner nodded politely and went back to her book.

The next day, the letters NIMBY carved into a chip on my shoulder, I attended a press conference co-sponsored by the National Foundation of Women Legislators (NFWL) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The purpose of the briefing was to voice support for the Bush administration's "War on Narco-Terrorism." It was as vague as it was underwhelming. And it made my shoulder ache.

NFWL was set up in 1938 as a nonpartisan nonprofit, to encourage women to participate in the policymaking process. All current and former female state legislators are eligible for membership. In a press release, NFWL president Robin Read calls the group's partnership with the DEA one of the most "innovative programs" in its history. Dubbed Shoulder to Shoulder, it's essentially a media campaign designed to educate citizens about the financial link between street drugs and international terrorism--a theme initially pushed in a series of expensive and controversial TV ads the DEA debuted during the Super Bowl.

On Thursday the NFWL and the DEA staged joint press conferences in Washington, D.C., and all 50 states. In Minnesota, Rep. Ellen Otremba, a DFLer from Long Prairie, joined DEA agent Edward Van Patten to, as Otremba put it, "help spread the truth about drug abuse."

Word at the Capitol is that Otremba was the only legislator who expressed interest in the initiative. When Rep. Phyllis Kahn, a DFLer from Minneapolis, first heard about Shoulder to Shoulder, she fired off a letter to Read objecting to the ideological thrust of NFWL's drugs-equal-terror message and the DEA's documented hostility toward the legalization of marijuana for medical use. "I think this is just another example of politicians in Washington using the events of September 11 to push their own narrow agendas," says Kahn, who copied her letter to her legislative peers.

Retorts Otremba: "As a mom and as a woman, this is an issue I must talk about." Asked if any of her fellow state lawmakers are interested in Shoulder to Shoulder, Otremba nods yes but claims she can't name names until they "come onboard." Does she intend to introduce drug-related legislation? She again answers yes and balks at providing specifics.

Van Patten made a point of noting that his office has seen an increase in teenage abuse of Ecstasy. When quizzed about the link between this "club drug" and narco-terrorism, he is a tad taken aback. But he recovers well, noting that Ecstasy is made in Europe and is sometimes distributed by the Russian mafia. (In fact, according to the DEA, a vast majority of Ecstasy is manufactured in the Netherlands and Belgium and distributed by Israeli organized-crime syndicates, some composed of Russian émigrés.)

Not exactly the turban-wearing stereotype President Bush hopes Americans will imagine when he talks about the war on narco-terrorism. But this administration has yet to concern itself with such pesky details.

In December the Bush administration sent DEA chief Asa Hutchinson out to promote the agency's newfound commitment to "demand reduction"--code for community-based drug prevention. The idea being that by changing its law-and-order rhetoric, the administration (and by extension the DEA) would look less Draconian. Politicians on both sides of the aisle lauded Bush's effort as both compassionate and innovative--even though the administration still plans to spend seven times more money on drug interdiction than treatment.

Back on my porch, as I stare at the house down the street, it occurs to me: Politically speaking, the war on drugs and the war on terrorism are a good fit. They are both fights against amoral, amorphous, and faceless enemies. And in real terms, that means never having to address the cause of either plague: in the case of terrorism, a strategically incoherent foreign policy aimed at advancing special interests and immune to the cause of human rights; in the case of our drug laws, a racist relationship between supply and demand, made worse by absolutists who insist on narrowing the debate to legalization vs. prohibition, when neither "solution" is practical or preferable.

This is all so clear to me, in fact, that I'm going to write a letter to my Congressman. First, though, I have to get my house ready to sell. I hear there's an opening in that old brownstone.


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