George Bushs Joint

Rebecca Schoenkopf takes on the presidents drug war

Yes, the Office of National Drug Control Policy had lots of statistics. The only problem was their stats kept contradicting their other stats, but they kept repeating them just the same. It was kind of like a prosecutor who tries two supposed accomplices separately, changing the facts in each trial so he can argue that this was the perp who had pulled the trigger. Perfectly legal according to the appellate courts, but kind of stinky, don't you think?

We walked from the lovely train depot through a Caltrans war zone on Pacific Highway to the San Diego County Administration Building; engraved on the front of the grand, tall building was the legend "Good Government Demands the Intelligent Interest of Every Citizen." We had to enter from the side; the front doors are closed so terrorists can't come in. Works from a civic art exhibition lined the walls of the first floor—citizens' sweet watercolors of frogs and Mission architecture. On the third floor, two female aides were waiting to greet us and point us into the right room. They knew who we were because we had RSVP'd, but there was still a moment of paranoia on my part. I really wish I knew what was in my FBI file.

We sat in the second row of a conference room that was perhaps 7 percent full. A few local news stations sent cameras; they wouldn't have much to film, but we all got swell press packs, helpfully complemented with notepads and pens. Those of us who were real journalists already had our own long notebooks, and we wielded them proudly. There seemed to be three of us. (The other nine or 10 attendees, it would turn out, were representing for marijuana task forces and local treatment centers. The task forcers would go on to spout really wild-eyed statements during the question segment. Fun!) We looked through press packets brimming with stat sheets and releases. On the very first page, the fourth bullet point stated, "In [fiscal year] 2001, 42.2 percent of federally sentenced offenders in Southern California had committed a drug offense. Of that total, 76.8 percent involved marijuana."

Good god: more than three-fourths of all drug offenders were sentenced for pot? Pot? Isn't that statistic usually trumpeted by people who are against the drug war? Are communist moles in the Office of National Drug Control Policy trying to undermine its mission? Most citizens would think that's a big waste of jail space, especially since "more than 83 million Americans (37 percent) ages 12 and older have tried marijuana at least once." That comes from the Office of National Drug Control Policy's press packet, too, and that would be a lot of new jail cells!

A short time later, the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign's deputy director, Robert Denniston—he introduced himself as "Bob"—called us to order and introduced the panel. First was Thomas Alexander, a shiny-headed black man in a beautiful black suit, from the county probation department. He had a gray mustache and a gentle demeanor. He would eventually advocate testing all teens before they entered high school.

Next was Igor Koutsenok, a psychiatrist and associate director of UC San Diego's Addiction Training Center. He told shocking truths that were immediately twisted back into drug-warriorese by the panel and the moderator. He had a richly rolling accent from east of the Elbe.

Linda Bridgeman Smith is the planning manager of San Diego County's Health and Human Services Agency's alcohol and drug services. She had soft brown eyes and rarely got to say anything.

Elizabeth Urquhart, director of adolescent services at the San Diego Phoenix House, had pretty, long blond hair. She was flashy and spouted nonsense that Igor (he told us, "Call me 'Igor'!") had refuted only minutes before. She also gave warm, extremely condescending looks to the teen panelist . . .

Juan. A soft-spoken, 18-year-old man in a shirt and tie, Juan had shortly cropped hair and a goatee. I had remembered the invitation to the panel as touting the inclusion of an "actual teen!" but this turned out to be unfair on my part. The invitation merely stated "a teen who has experienced problems with marijuana will also join the conversation." My bad.

For 45 minutes or so, we listened as Denniston posed questions to the panel. Denniston, a bespectacled, bearded man who looks like a shrink or a college professor, is an excellent face for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He was reasonable, tossing objections out to the panel before the audience could. When Urquhart noted the number of "addicts" in treatment at Phoenix House, for instance, he asked how many of those had been court-ordered vs. how many were self-identified. And he began reasonably, as well, saying, "This is not about medical marijuana or legalization. Those are valid topics for debate, but they're not why we're here."

Valid topics for debate? Shut yo mouth!

When he introduced Juan, he noted that Juan had been clean and sober for more than a year. "That's great," he said gently. "We're very proud of you." And we were!

And when the probation department's Alexander kept mentioning how many of the young people he oversaw had "drug issues" (which I interpreted, correctly or incorrectly, as kids who had been caught with drugs, solely or in addition to their other crimes), Denniston smoothly prompted, "So those are young people with drug problems, correct?" Oh, yes, indeed, agreed Alexander. From then on, Alexander cited the number of youths under his supervision with "drug problems."

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