Apple Bonging

The third LA Times- and UC Irvine-sponsored community forum on March 10 was livened by the audience's boisterous challenges to panelists whose pronouncements on Orange County's War on Drugs wandered from weirdly baffling to patently idiotic.

Declaring that "there is no such thing" as victimless drug use, keynoter and Long Beach psychiatrist Joseph Pursch role-played a drunken airline pilot "who consumed a legal drug on his own time" and nearly offed a planeload. This non sequitur was rendered more ludicrous by Superior Court Judge James Gray's revelation that the panel itself had sipped a few backstage.

If audience members had downed more wine ($4 per tiny cup at the bar), more of them might have untangled what the hell the panel's rambling, off-target analogies meant. UCI pharmacologist Larry Stein decried "the arbitrariness with which substances are legal and illegal" [applause]; then he called for "strong government controls" against drugs (huh?).

Steve Stavely, law-enforcement chief for the state Department of Justice, opted for flat fibbing. "Very few people are in prison for simple possession of drugs," he insisted.

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"Garbage!" a chunk of the audience howled in healthy gag reflex. The latest Department of Corrections report showed that in 1996, simple possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use was California's single-largest prison rap, caging 6,781 new inmates and re-caging 3,891 parole violators-one-sixth of all imprisonments. But moderator and Times editorial-page editor Stephen Burgard allowed only written questions that were screened in advance, leaving shouting as the only means of aerating the panel's scarier claims.

For seamless lunacy, however, no one could top Drug Use Is Life Abuse director Marilyn MacDougall's geyser. Kids, she raved, core apples to make bongs. Kids are huffing heroin. Kids snarf methamphetamine all over their schools. Parents have to get scared when they find reamed apples.

Where nations relaxed dope laws, she declared, "crime escalated to the point that these countries are out of control." The audience hooted incredulously. Orange County's murder rate is six times higher than the Netherlands', the country most cited for decriminalizing marijuana and heroin-needle exchanges. Far fewer died from drugs there (50 in a nation of 16 million people in 1995) than here (140 in a county of 2.6 million). While the Dutch drug toll dropped by one-third over the past decade, Orange County's escalated.

As for MacDougall's claim that her "righteous war" protects the young, the Netherlands suffered 43 murders of persons under 25 in 1995-compared with 86 in Orange County, a rate 12 times higher. A huge chunk of America's murdered youngsters are killed by doped-up adults, scorched in trailers where the folks overcooked their meth, or gunned down in warfare among gangs that supply tens of thousands of mostly older, suburban coke- and smackheads.

And that's what makes very unfunny the MacDougall-type roadshows that bury the real drug crisis under an avalanche of terror tales of pop-culture-warped kids wazzed from licking scorpions or huffing owl shit or whatever the last seventh-grade joker told her. She warned, "In 2010, we will have 62 percent more 15- to 19-year-olds" so ripped "the prisons won't hold them." Unless, of course, we allocate more money into apple-bong suppression.

In fact, California's population of 15- to 19-year-olds has been growing rapidly during the past eight years, and crime has plummeted-especially among teens, who are far more law-abiding today than teens 20 years ago. The youth scourge is a myth, no matter how much the fear lobbies in officialdom and the media try to make it self-fulfilling prophecy. Teenagers are not abstaining, but they remain less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than their grown counterparts.

If surveys of student drug use are right, at least 50,000 teens in Orange County must drink or use some other drug on any given weekend.

A small number drunkenly crash a car, overdose on meth, chug a handful of aspirin every year-teens cause about 2 percent of drug tragedies and 7 percent of drunken-driving crashes. But for the vast majority of kids, the biggest danger is not themselves or their peers, but rather the rampant adult addictions and denial thereof the drug war promotes.

Only Gray made sense: most people can handle drugs moderately, a few can't, and the drug war should address drug addiction rather than perpetuating its "failed policy of zero tolerance" and prison-happy "war on people."

Last year, I attended a well-liquored luncheon of the Orange County Grand Jury Association, at which Gray asked how many in attendance would criminalize alcohol as marijuana is criminalized. After all, 500 Orange Countians died in the 1990s in drunken-driving crashes compared with zero deaths from pot. (Just three local wrecks caused by besotted middle-aged drivers killed a dozen kids, in fact.) MacDougall's hand did not go up, nor did anyone else's at her loudmouth "zero-tolerance" table. But a large majority thumbed-down Gray's argument that seriously ill people should be allowed legal use of marijuana as medication.

As the "war on drugs'" tells us: silence is acceptance.

Mike Males is a social ecologist at UC Irvine and an author.

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