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Strange Bongfellows

Newt's back! Well, he is as of this moment, but perhaps not for long. This week's Republican frontrunner at least outshines all the other erstwhile candidates in terms of intellectual capacity and achievement, although that's not saying much. In terms of ethics, well, that's another story.

On some issues he's been prescient and progressive, shockingly enough. In the medical realm, when one digs around in the vast literature contained in thousands of journals, some fascinating and surprising tidbits can turn up. Consider the following quote:

“We believe licensed physicians are competent to employ marijuana, and patients have a right to employ marijuana legally, under medical supervision from a regulated source. The medical prohibition does not prevent seriously ill patients from employing marijuana; it simply deprives them of medical supervision and access to a regulated medical substance. Physicians are often forced to choose between their ethical responsibilities to the patient and their legal liabilities to federal bureaucrats.”

True words, and wisely put. But who is the source? An activist spokesman from a cannabis buyers’ club? A committed physician angry when threatened because he believes some patients benefit from marijuana? A liberal academic or columnist? Just some stoner?

None of the above. The author was ex-House Speaker and current Presidential semi-candidate Newt Gingrich. He wrote about cannabis in the Journal of the American Medical Association way back in 1982.

At that point, the Republican from Georgia was embarking on his rise and fall as King of the Hill, but he had a way with words and seemingly a good grip on the true conservative’s creed of minimal governmental interference in private lives.’ Republicans since have tended to be notably silent on this issue. Isn’t it ironic, then, that our “liberal” Democratic administrations have also taken a hard-line prohibitive stance on drug issues, and continued to arrest and incarcerate as many people as at any time during our longstanding “war on drugs”?

This past month, President Jimmy Carter authored an eloquent New York Times op-ed titled “Call off the Global Drug War.” It’s been said that if one lives long enough, nothing seems new. In this context, the new reports and recommendations Carter cites from prominent governmental, international, and professional organizations have been released this year — all condemning America’s War on Drugs as a failure. Use and abuse by people does not seem to be affected much by our punitive policies, but we do spend billions enforcing the laws, especially when it comes to arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating people. All along, legal drugs — tobacco and alcohol — harm and kill far more people than illegal ones.

Thus, a somewhat strange alliance of civil libertarians, plain old libertarians, conservative politicians and former police chiefs and judges and the like have joined with a motley alliance of people who like various drugs to oppose the Drug War. Most recently, budget-starved officials have started to talk more about legalization of some drugs — now, in this public cash-starved era, mainly for the purpose of taxation.

Yet informed folks will tell you the obvious — federal laws and authorities are likely to prevent this. There are numerous reasons, but over the decades I've become convinced that it really has little to do with drugs per se, but with budgets for prisons, law enforcement personnel, and the whole “prison-industrial complex.” If we “follow the money,” as it’s now budgeted and spent, the same old story prevails: Law enforcement takes precedence over health and medical needs. This is doubly ironic when tobacco and alcohol, our most destructive drugs of choice, escape truly tough scrutiny and regulation — including taxation which might realistically offset their social costs.

What can be done? The conviction that drug abuse is, or should be, more a public health issue than a legal one is shared by an increasing number of experts from all walks of life. Drug treatment has shown to be not only more effective at deterring criminal behavior in many cases but is far more cost-effective than imprisonment — by a ratio of one dollar well-spent saving seven in costs, according to the most widely-accepted estimate. In any event, there are a few ideas to consider:

We might consider making treatment for addiction available to everyone who needs it, instead of expecting them to wait for so long that they get frustrated and disappear. We might pay for that by increasing the taxes on legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco to levels found in other civilized nations.

We could further restrict or even ban tobacco and alcohol advertising altogether.

We might repeal mandatory sentencing of drug users and instead have mandatory addiction treatment for criminals. Money saved on prisons could be spent instead on drug treatment and education.

We might focus the drug education of our children on the dangers of legal drugs and the truth about illegal ones, rather than hysterical scaremongering.

We might decriminalize cannabis and do all of the above concerning it, as recently recommended by those radicals in the California Medical Association.

I’m not holding my breath for dramatic improvement very soon. But if I can be in full agreement with Newt Gingrich on such an issue as medical marijuana, anything is possible. In the meantime, I hope somebody asks him, at one of the big Republican debates which are serving as de facto commercials for Obama, what he thinks about pot now.

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