Drug War Policy Sermon
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My mother died of cancer last month. She had been a smoker most of her life. Because I suffer physically in the presence of smoke, and because I love my mother I have been interested in cigarette addiction. She tried to stop a few times. In early years her children chided her, but as time passed we surrendered. She got down to filters and then down to the mildest o f the filtered cigarettes. She was treated for breast cancer six years ago. Cancer was found in her lungs and liver early this year. Today the average American woman lives to the age of 77, and Mom almost made it.
During this time remarkable changes occurred in her family and in the nation. President Nixon named the first Drug Czar.&nb sp; One of his first goals was to list drugs in order of their danger, but he was prevented from doing this because tobacco and alcohol were at the top of the list and far outpaced all the drugs that followed. The New England Journal of Medicine then came out and said, "No one ever died from smoking marijuana."
At a personal level, in 1988 my mother was greatly pained that I was diagnosed with throat cancer and was treated. As a result I became even more sensitive than before; even incense burning is an irritant. At the national level warnings were put on cigarettes, and an honest fellow named Dr. Everett Koop became Surgeon General of the United States. In 1988 he released findings that tobacco is as addictive as heroin in 1988 and this explained why mother's effort to stop smoking had failed. [NYT, May 17, 1988] Ex-heroin users regularly report that tobacco's grip is harder to break than heroin's. The recidivism rate is 75% for both types of addicts, although about 50 million Americans had managed to quit by 1990, leading some to hope that this once socially approved habit was going to go the way of the spittoon.
At the local level, cities began to initiate clean indoor air policies for restaurants, airports, and other public buildings. In the 1990s it became known that the tobacco industry had in fact manipulated the level of nicotine in cigarettes so as to catch customers. People began suing tobacco companies. Mother said it was wrong because decades ago everyone knew it affected our health adversely. Because Mom died last month she missed reading about how tobacco companies pressured the World Health Organization, known as WHO, not to try to stop cigarette sales to third world countries. They created front organizations, misrepresented research, pitted other organizations against the WHO, and lobbied to cut the organization's funding. [See NYT Editorial, "An Ugly Move by Big Tobacco," August 3, 2000] Indeed, years earlier tobacco companies had pressured the United States to apply sanctions to foreign companies that would not allow their product to be sold. Foreign countries argued they simply cannot afford the care tobacco users require; they can't immunize their kids much less support a cancer center like M. D. Anderson. Thailand was restricting American tobacco imports and advertising. The American testified that this product is the best in the world, and the Thai representative replied, "Certainly in the Golden Triangle we have some of the best product [alluding to opium poppies], but we never ask the principle of free trade to govern such products. In fact we suppressed them." Dr. Everett Koop said before Congress, "When we are pleading with foreign governments to stop the flow of cocaine to our shores, it is the height of hypocrisy for the US to export tobacco." [Quoted by Noam Chomsky in "The War on (Certain) Drugs," 1993] We currently export American cigarettes as part of the Food for Peace program, and this export is subsidized.
Anthony Lewis, columnist for The New York Times, writes, "When you think of the relative harm done by tobacco and drugs, it is amazing that tobacco company executives are treated as respectable people. They wear suits, and they have fine lawyers, but they do much more harm than drug peddlers." (But of course they ARE drug peddlers.)
The other interesting sociological phenomenon that happened in the 1990s is pharmaceutical companies directly advertising their prescription drugs to us as the prospective patients. This meant that we can read about drugs we might want, and ask our doctors -- and maybe pressure them -- for a prescription.
And this is my first point, and I do not expect all of you to buy it, but would you be open-minded enough to consider it as you read print media and advertising: All these people are dealers who push their product. But we in the United States deal well with tobacco because in spite of enormous propaganda from tobacco companies, we have good education on the subject, and adult smoking has declined. 425,000 deaths a year are attributed to smoking; 100,000 deaths a years are attributed to alcohol. Incidentally, 45,000 people a year die from using prescription drugs and over the counter medications!
Many people have commented that throughout history humanity has used drugs and most of that time drugs were not outlawed. For the most part it goes over our heads, because what most of us use is legal: caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and for some Americans, cannabis -- about ten states have decriminalized possession of marijuana. When I am ill I go the Medical Center, and get a prescription. I forget that most of the people in the world have no access to such facilities. When we use whatever drugs we use, for the purpose of reducing pain, relaxing muscles, restoring a sense of well being and pleasure, we may feel superior to others when in fact we are only more shielded by our privileges.
I was a minister in Chicago in the 1970s and Barbara Edgecombe was a parishioner who found the church. She eagerly joined and later decided to go to seminary and become a Unitarian Universalist minister. She has been a minister for over 15 years and she presently serves the congregation in East Lansing, Michigan. In December of 1996 her townhouse was stormed by six police officers before breakfast. She had only recently moved into the townhouse. She was being treated for breast cancer with chemotherapy. She told the police she had never heard of the man they were lookin g for. Assuming she was protecting him, an officer ordered her to get down and he pushed on her back to make her lie on the floor. "Please close the door, I'm in chemo and I'm terribly cold."&nbs p; He pushed her face into the carpet and did not close the door. After concluding the man they sought was not there, they continued to question her and she explained she had no idea who he was.
After they left she was treated at the hospital for a sprained back that had many bruises on it. The Head of the Narcotics Unit returned later that morning to assess property damages and to apologize for the unfortunate mistake. He said the element of surprise is critical to drug busts, and that though they try to take every precaution, from time to time something like this happens. His implication was that such assaults are the price we lawful citizens have to pay if we want to win the war against drugs. Barbara's story is tame compared to the stories of people who have lost their lives by zealous enforcement agents. Barbara says, "People are gradually becoming accustomed to the infringement on civil rights. We aren't seeking alternatives."
Let me tell you about someone who is seeking alternatives. If you do not already know her you must meet Frances Burford, a member of the Board of Trustees of First Church. She wrote a study resolution for the Unitarian Universalist congregations of North America and it was passed at the last General Assembly. It calls for the reformation of drug policy in an effort to reduce use , preserve and regain our rights as citizens under the Constitution, to stop scapegoating minorities, and stop interfering in the internal affairs of other nations. The use of illegal drugs has put thousands of nonviolent people in jails and prisons. The United States was contrasted with the nations that comprise the European Union. Europe has 100,000,000 more people; the United States has 100,000 more prisoners.
We have two million prisoners. Only Russia has a higher rate of citizens incarcerated. Almost 60% of federal inmates are drug offenders -- half of them first time nonviolent offenders.
80% of all arrests are for possession of drugs. 44% of those are for possession of marijuana.
Most of the prisoners are black, 2/3rds of them, although overwhelmingly users are white. (Only 13% of the regular users are black.) Our punishment is not only disproportionate to the crime, our enforcement is racist. The same amount of crack used in an urban setting is more s everely punished than cocaine used in a suburban setting.
Our prisoners directly cost the government $23,000 a year each, and indirectly cost the nation broken families and lost income and governmental subsidies if the breadwinner is in jail.
So Frances Burford has prodded the UUs [Unitarian Universalists] to honor our covenant to be open-minded and honest. This is part of a growing national movement. Walter Cronkite -- I digress momentarily to tell you his father was a Montrose physician and president of the Board of this church during the 1930s, and we have the 16 year old Walter's signature in the Membership Book from that time -- Walter Cronkite has asked for a non-partisan blue ribbon commission to do the same kind of study. Neither the Republican nor the Democratic parties will touch it, yet.
But things grow worse year by year. We certify nations that are our allies in the drug war. We certified Mexico in spite of evidence that Mexico is a primary transit route for cocaine and a major producer of marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamines. It is ironic that we should have a system of certification and decertification; it allows the drug consuming United States to vilify those who supply its drugs. Very soon President Clinton will visit Colombia for a day to highlight the gift of over a billion dollars to help Colombia fight drugs. We insist that countries spend their resources to stop drug production, even as we insist that countries let our tobacco companies advertise and sell cigarettes. This is one reason we are called the arrogant Americans.