December 3, 2006
Drug Wars; Time to Put Down the Shovel
By Mark McVay
A look at how the "war on drugs" causes more harm than good in America and a challenge to Americans to call for its end.
::::::::Honesty is the best policy, or so I teach my students. I tell them that because it's true. As former President Bill Clinton said in a speech not long ago, "When you're digging yourself into a hole, it's best to put down the shovel, not look for a bigger one." It sounded like a good metaphor to me. So perhaps it is time for me to tell the truth. Not that I've been lying for the past thirty or so years, but I have gone just a little out of my way to avoid some of the obvious consequences of telling the whole truth. Nearly 36 years ago this past April, inside the turret section of a 155mm howitzer some 40 miles northeast of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in South Vietnam I was introduced to marijuana by a couple of seasoned veterans who'd stopped believing in the U.S. war effort there several months earlier. I would soon learn that there were many others like them putting in their time in South Vietnam even as protests against the war in the U.S. grew in size and number and eventually brought the war to an anticlimactic end. About 10 months later I returned home to the uncertain future of a father who lay dying from inoperable brain cancer and a mother who hadn't worked outside the home since World War II, and who now faced the prospect of raising 8 and 14 year old sons alone and doing it with little or no income. In the months following my return to the United States I helped care for my increasingly incapacitated father, started attending college on the GI Bill full time, took on the role of surrogate father to my youngest brother, and (gasp) continued smoking pot. Contrary to what current social and psychological "experts" would have you believe is possible, I maintained a 3.5 GPA while working full time, helped my mother through a very difficult time, and graduated from college five years later. All through those years, I mistakenly assumed it would only be a matter of time before marijuana became legal. Although I have long since quit smoking pot, preferring a clear head and clean lungs to congestion and clouds, I have never changed my position about the legality issue. I have signed petitions and supported legalization efforts wherever I have lived, and I have watched dumbfounded as politicians and law enforcement officials have chosen to condemn, arrest, and incarcerate pot smokers and sometimes house them with violent criminals as their solution to the marijuana problem (which, by the way, is far from being eradicated despite ongoing outlandish expenditures and the forfeiture of many legal rights). Those who occasionally speak out for legalization are soundly and vehemently ridiculed despite continuing evidence that pot smoking is among the more innocuous habits in a culture that profits from cigarette sales, allows alcohol manufacturers to sponsor national pastimes, and gives billions of dollars in preferential tax treatment to pharmaceutical companies whose products are hyped incessantly during commercial breaks on television and have far more harmful intended and unintended side effects than pot. It is ludicrous, deceitful, hypocritical, and, rest assured, even our children know it. For the past nine years I have been teaching 13-15 year old children in Oregon, Colorado, California, and Michigan. Even at that age many of them scoff at the ads that show eggs frying in a pan, declaring the image to be "your brain on drugs". By the time children reach 8th grade, they believe little or nothing of what teachers tell them about drugs despite the easy availability of anti-drug literature, the inclusion of mandatory "health" classes in most school curricula, and a lifetime of hearing how drugs make you go crazy. Why? Because they have seen parents, siblings, and friends smoke pot with relatively mild results and they interpret that to mean that adults have been lying to them all along, and about every other drug as well. The longer that society perpetuates this hypocrisy, and continues waging a futile war against pot smokers, the longer America will be arresting your children, building new prisons to house them, and assuring a continued proliferation of illegal and violent drug cartels and others willing to risk life and limb in order to rake in a share of the profits. In the meantime the vast majority of drug users in this country - those who discreetly obtain one or more of a tremendous variety of easily obtainable illicit drugs, use them at home on weekends, and endanger no one but themselves (perhaps America's greatest "silent majority") - will continue to do so as they have for the past 40 years or more. Most discreet pot smokers and recreational drug users seem willing to sacrifice some young street dealers here and there; perhaps an 18 year old kid who hasn't yet learned the ropes, a desperate single mom, or an inner city kid for whom it is the best, perhaps the only, way to make a decent wage; and remain silent as the less fortunate (as evidenced by those sought out on television shows like COPS) are busted and sacrificed for the greater good. In middle America we'll continue to pay the fines for our sons and daughters who are easy targets for overzealous law enforcement officials, and we will hope that they don't get jail time. In doing so, we'll perpetuate the long running lies about the harmful effects of marijuana and refuse to address what is the most harmful effect - initiation into the criminal justice system, the establishment of a criminal record, and the beginning of a bad attitude toward law enforcement officials. We'll make our payments and our token sacrifices and, in doing so, continue to avoid bringing a cloud of suspicion down upon ourselves. But, more importantly, we'll guarantee our children's continued experimentation with really dangerous drugs because we have failed to tell them the truth about the relatively harmless ones. The other night I sat at home watching an episode of COPS on which a helicopter, three squad cars, and half-a-dozen heavily armed Los Angeles police officers swooped down unexpectedly on a 19-year old man living in a trailer on the edge of the desert. He was thrown to the ground, handcuffed, put in a squad car, and taken back to the station while police combed his property for what an informant had assured them was a "major pot growing operation". After several hours police had located the dealer's cache - three dried up marijuana plants in a gallon sized plastic container. Viewers were informed that the man was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. What a coup for America! In Atlanta two weeks ago, an 88 year old woman was killed and three undercover narcotics officers were wounded when police raided the woman's home based on information obtained from an informant who admitted he never bought drugs at the home. A small amount of pot was found inside. Are we safer yet? When I smoked pot for the first time in Vietnam inside that howitzer at a firebase we called Holiday Inn I learned to enjoy the distance that a few pulls on a filter tipped marijuana cigarette put between my country's publicly professed interest in Vietnam and the reality of what I was experiencing on the ground. When I left Vietnam in 1970 after 11 months and returned home to a father dying from brain cancer and a mother whose life had suddenly fallen into shambles at age 54, marijuana continued to help me cope with my own readjustment and that of my entire family. When I finally decided to stop smoking pot in the mid-70's, it was simply because its original appeal had worn thin and I became bored with it. Since that time I have raised two children, written for several magazines and newspapers, run 41 marathons, and earned degrees from Wayne State and Western Oregon University. I have taught adults and adolescents English and Social Studies in Oregon, Colorado, and California, and Michigan. My oldest daughter has earned a degree in marketing from Michigan State University. My youngest daughter graduated from Metro State in Denver last year. I have to wonder at my fate and theirs had I returned from Vietnam to the "lock 'em up" law enforcement mindset that we see in so many places today. I think of how different my own contribution to society might have been had I reentered civilian life in such a climate. Instead of a college degree earned between 1971-76, it might have been a criminal rap sheet. Instead of teaching hundreds of children how to read and write with enthusiasm, and how to express themselves thoughtfully and meaningfully, I may have been a ward of the state, writing only appeals to the court or memoirs from behind bars. I think it's time to put down the shovel. I think it's time for all of us to put down our shovels and start being truthful with ourselves and our kids. The "war on drugs" is a 40 year old myth that continues to ruin lives at a cost of billions of dollars annually. It's time to stop digging.
Mark McVay has lived and taught school in Oregon, Michigan, California, and Colorado. He is a Vietnam veteran and served in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in South Vietnam in 1969-70. His wife is a retired USMC officer. McVay's writing has appeared in Detroit Free Press, Free Press Sunday Magazine, Michigan Runner, Sport Detroit Magazine, The Metro Times, The Voice Newspaper Group, Michigan Voice, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, The Canyon Courier, San Diego Tribune, and the Denver Post primarily on the topics of politics, education, and sports. He currently lives and writes in Golden, Colorado.