Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Dope Smokers on the Air

By Steven Robert Allen

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  There are several reasons why the U.S. won't be considering the option of liberalizing its drug policies any time soon. Most of these reasons have less to do with the reality of our domestic drug problem than with the overwhelming hysteria with which Americans react to any mention of mind-altering substances.

Our news media share and augment this hysteria. Whatever you do, don't rely on television news to get the skinny on the drug war. Recent coverage spurred by New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson's call for drug legalization has been short on facts and, in many cases, deliberately misleading.

A fine example comes by way of the imbeciles at Albuquerque's KOAT TV-7. A couple weeks ago the station ran a two-minute segment during its 10 p.m. newscast on drug policy in the Netherlands. These 120 seconds of "news" were TV at its inane, superficial, irresponsible worst, and proof that TV news can be more damaging to a brain than a snort of cocaine. The report made it sound as if, since decriminalizing the use of cannabis, the Netherlands had become a nation of crazed junkies. KOAT showed various shady-looking characters snorting powdery substances while the disembodied voice of reporter Mike Sims made unattributed statements indicating that Dutch society started disintegrating following legalization.

The only person KOAT interviewed was Barry McCaffrey. Although it wasn't mentioned in the report, McCaffrey is a retired military general who serves as the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Known as the "Drug Czar," McCaffrey is responsible for reviewing the budgets of all federal agencies -- from the Defense Department to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the Department of Education -- and certifying that these agencies are doing their part to fight the drug war.

McCaffrey has a vested interest in waging the war indefinitely. About a year ago, he became the center of controversy when he drastically overestimated the Dutch homicide rate to "prove" that drug legalization leads to murder. Even after being corrected by CNN, the Dutch ambassador and numerous other sources, McCaffrey refused to budge from his falsified claims.

McCaffrey's perspective was all KOAT offered its viewers. The station neglected to consult any Dutch sources or interview any Dutch officials. The segment concluded by saying that leading drug "experts" -- all unnamed -- believe that legalization is not the answer and will only make things much worse.

The KOAT report was heavy on ambiguous statements from unnamed sources and light on actual data and context. The picture viewers got of the Netherlands was of a society spinning out of control. In actuality, the situation is somewhat different.

The de facto legalization of marijuana in the Netherlands occurred in 1976. According to Arjan Sas of the Centre for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam, "There was no immediate increase in cannabis use after 1976 and trends in use have generally been the same as in other countries." Actually, statistics provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Dutch National Institute of Health and Addiction reveal that the current percentage of marijuana users in the Dutch teenage populace is approximately half of what it is among American teenagers. The percentage of heroin users in the Dutch general populace is likewise approximately half of what it is in the U.S. Furthermore, according to McCaffrey's own ONDCP and the Dutch Justice Department, drug-related law enforcement in per capita spending in the U.S. is approximately three times what it is in the Netherlands. It's probably no coincidence that, despite McCaffrey's active imagination, the homicide rate in the U.S. is four times what it is in the Netherlands (source: FBI Uniform Crime Report and Dutch Bureau of Statistics).

It might have been enlightening to see a comparison between the Netherlands and other European countries in which drug policies have not been liberalized. If KOAT had done this, their viewers would have learned that marijuana and hard drug use is lower in the Netherlands than it is in many European countries, including Britain.

Any of this information would have provided balance and context to the report. The truth is that the quarter-century experiment with liberalized drug policies in the Netherlands has not resulted in chaos. My wife is Dutch, and I personally have lived in the Netherlands. Characterizing this tiny, affluent, highly-organized country as a nation of junkies is simply ludicrous. Coffee shops that sell cannabis are hardly dens of iniquity, and they have not led to a corrupted youth: Dutch teenagers consistently get among the highest scores in the world on international science and mathematics tests. If only McCaffrey could say the same about his own country.

In the end, the KOAT report was a model of irresponsible journalism and a slap in the face of its viewers. Of course, only an idiot would argue that drug abuse is benign. The question is whether prohibition is the answer. There seems to be quite a bit of data suggesting that it is not. But you'd never know it from watching KOAT.

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