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George Bush’s joint

In this extract from her new book, Commie Girl in the OC, Rebecca Schoenkopf, the 'queen bee/black widow of alternative journalism', goes inside the federal propaganda machine against marijuana

July 28, 2008
15 min read

Marijuana can be addictive. Marijuana isn’t great for learning or short-term memory. Marijuana’s not the best thing for children-the best things for children are fresh air, sunshine and love! And if you own a bong (or ‘water pipe,’ as the head shops insist upon calling them), the chances are good that you smoke way too much dope. Nobody really needs a bong.

Can we all stipulate to that?

The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy wants us to stipulate to a little more: that marijuana is far more dangerous than it was when the Boomers smoked it (the Boomers, of course, can’t refute this by admitting to smoking it still); that marijuana will turn our precious tots into dropouts who rob banks; that marijuana is, in fact, a scourge upon our youth. To do this, they threw a party. Okay, it wasn’t so much a party as a panel put on for the SoCal media, but I love panels, and the sandwiches were excellent.

Tuesday afternoon, I got an invite for the ‘Marijuana and Kids’ media briefing in San Diego the next day. Fantastic. A few minutes later, my dad called to check in and have a nice gossip. My dad is a recovering addict (mostly coke and other uppers) who owns and runs a treatment centere in Malibu and also publishes the online magazine Heroin Times. It’s a non-judgmental look at all the facets of heroin addiction, providing information on how to kick it, obits from grieving parents, editorials on the Drug War and referrals on where to get clean. Would my dad come with me to San Diego? We could board the Amtrak right in Santa Ana and have a delightful day together under the auspices of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. It would be the best day ever!

My dad said yes!

The whole way down to San Diego, we drank coffee in the Coastliner’s lounge car and watched the folks on their way to the Del Mar racetrack troop boisterously in for more rounds of beers and Bloody Marys. It was 10.30am. A young blond guy several beers in sat with headphones on and stared at me. We avoided his reddened gaze and chatted instead with a man who had overheard us guffawing about the conference to which we were headed.

I’m not a member of the National Organisation for the Repeal of Marijuana Laws (those NORML cats can party!), but I think prohibitions against pot are preposterous. I find especially outrageous the $170 million budget of the Office of National Drug Control Policy-and that’s just for ad campaigns and media buys. It doesn’t count the billions spent on black helicopters and Agent Orange for spraying on farms in South America. I even thought Johnny Depp’s recent quote about buying pot for his kids when they get older was the most responsible bit of parenting I’d heard in some time.

I grew up with a daddy who was a drug addict, and I have a pretty good grasp on ‘harmful.’ Harmful and I go way back. And the occasional pot smoker ain’t it.

Take two drinks at dinner? Get giggly at a party? You’re probably okay. Get smashed on rye and drive with your kid in the car? You’re probably not. And it viscerally pisses me off when people try to conflate the two. The Office of National Drug Control Policy wants us to know it’s a ‘myth’ that marijuana is ‘harmless’. Thanks for the straw man, Office of National Drug Control Policy. Nobody said it was, but for the vast majority of otherwise law-abiding citizens who smoke dope once in a while, it’s fine. In fact, we even have a young family member who is addicted to pot; we’ve had loads of fabulous interventions for him that didn’t take, but now that he’s a little bit older, he seems to be letting go of all his dropout, no-job lameness all by himself. Right now he’s in school and has a part-time job, and we’re very encouraged. Addiction to pot is bad, but even so, he has yet to violently rob a bank. The only person he’s hurting is his long-suffering mother, who has to scrimp to pay his rent. Being lazy isn’t against the law-yet.

So don’t get addicted; keep it to the equivalent of a drink at dinner, and it’ll probably lower your blood pressure and cure your glaucoma. I’d like to see the ‘liberal’ mainstream media admit that just once.

Going to the media briefing on ‘Marijuana and Kids’ from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, I had, you could say, an agenda.

The guy on the train lives in a Laguna Beach halfway house and was on his way to Tijuana to gamble. His sponsors say he has given up one addiction for another, but he never bets more than he can afford to lose. He never bets his rent. You know what I say? That that’s probably fine.

With the ocean to the west, my dad fielded phone calls from his staff about this or that client melting down into pockmarked piles of sobbing flesh (and one who was having a herpes outbreak and needed an Acyclovir scrip-stat!). Drugs are bad, and herpes is too, but not one of his clients is in there for marijuana dependency; they’re in for really icky stuff, like junk and crack. Stuff that will kill you or cause you to leave your baby in the crib for three days while you go on a mission, unlike pot. An hour later, the Office of National Drug Control Policy would try to tell us otherwise. Its panel of San Diego experts repeatedly conflated numbers of people court-ordered into rehab with numbers of people addicted to marijuana, for instance, even though if you’re caught with pot, you’re ordered into rehab regardless of whether or not you’re an addict.

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 watercolours 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 per cent 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 ten attendees, it would turn out, were representing for marijuana task forces and local treatment centres. 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 offence. 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 after we sat down, 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 grey mustache and a gentle demeanour. He would eventually advocate drug testing all teens before they entered high school.

Next was Igor Koutsenok, a psychiatrist and associate director of UC San Diego’s Addiction Training Centre. 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 legalisation. 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.’

Denniston was very, very good. And did I mention he was reasonable?

When Juan (actual teen!) told us of his experiences and subsequent sobriety, Denniston told him kindly, ‘You were fortunate in a couple of ways. There was treatment available, for one.’ This is the kind of thing Californians especially, with our terribly sane policy of mandating treatment over jail when available, like to hear. Then he asked a really useful question, too: ‘What’s the availability of treatment here in San Diego?’ That is a superuseful question! Bridgeman Smith raised her hand, but Urquhart answered instead-before throwing another condescending simper at Juan.

Juan, by the way, started smoking pot at 12 or 13 at the house of a friend who had a bad dealer brother. He also got hooked on meth and heroin, and when he OD’d (though probably not on pot), he decided he needed help. I think that was a fine decision.

Alexander agreed, adding, ‘Marijuana and meth are very interrelated.’ Igor, the UCSD psychiatrist, gave us the 411 on how marijuana affects the brain. As we’d all suspected, it damages it. Luckily, ‘We’ve found the effects are reversible, so it’s less severe than we thought.’ That’s the good news. Later, when asked by one of the three journalists about the difference between how marijuana damages the brain and how good, old-fashioned bourbon damages the brain, he forthrightly stated, ‘Alcohol is much more toxic. From a chemical composition standpoint, it’s worse. Much worse.’ Little bit off-message, Igor. And as John Ashcroft already knows, you really shouldn’t let those pesky journalists into media briefings at all.

Now Igor, remember, is against pot. But, to make sure we all got the point, Igor added, ‘There’s no evidence marijuana by itself can trigger violent or criminal behaviour. Alcohol definitely can.’ Eight separate pages in our handy press packets cited marijuana’s links to violent and/or criminal behaviour. Several had very large graphs, including the one titled, in 26-point type, ‘Marijuana Use Is Also Related to Other Delinquent Behaviours.’

And 20 minutes later, the head of the local youth-marijuana task force stated from the audience, ‘For everyone who believes marijuana is “Haight/Ashbury, go to the beach and listen to folk music”, I think the statistics will show that now it’s “toke up and go rob a liquor store”.’

Igor was getting off-message again. He had already explained that many of the people who become dependent on marijuana are using it to treat depression, when he explained to us, ‘We know that problems in school are not the result of substance abuse, but rather are a major factor in the initiation of substance abuse.’ (His emphasis.)

Do I really need to tell you how many pages in the press packet cited the relationship between pot and poor school performance?

Luckily, Denniston was there to set things right. ‘So you’re saying, “Let’s not confuse cause and effect. Marijuana is not the cause of school failure, and school failure is not the cause of marijuana abuse, but it’s circular.”‘

Am I insane? Eh, probably so.

Then, during the panel’s closing statements, the probation department’s Alexander stated, ‘Parents ask me, “What about testing? Should I test?” I say, have a plan. What are you gonna do if it’s positive, and what are you gonna do if it’s negative?’

Denniston: ‘That’s an interesting conversation. It raises issues of trust and punishment versus treatment.’

Alexander: ‘There’s a carrot at the end of it, but you gotta test.’

Since I’m not somebody who tries to win arguments by twisting things, I will be fair and point out that the parents he’s telling that to are parents of kids who are already in the system.

Bridgeman Smith got to talk for a moment, saying the county is very supportive of treatment services. I’m very glad to hear that.

Urquhart talked about drug use and the behaviors that go along with it, including doing poorly in school. Was she not listening to Igor at all?

Juan said he had no closing statement. I like Juan. I’m glad he’s clean.

After the panel discussion ended, Denniston came over to thank me for my questions (okay, I was the journalist who’d asked about pot and alcohol, plus a bunch of others that were too boring to go into on their ’emergency room’ statistics, which were just retarded, and some other stuff, too). I introduced my father and explained his magazine.

‘Oh, so you probably advocate harm reduction?’ Denniston asked.

‘No, we don’t advocate it, but we present all points of view without judgment,’ my dad rambled.

‘We’re not allowed to talk about harm reduction,’ Denniston chuckled.

‘Federal employee and all.’ Boy, he is so reasonable!

He’s so reasonable he’s probably even against Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch’s ‘Victory’ Act, which would expand the Patriot Act to include ‘narcoterrorism’. Not that he’d ever say so, since he’s a federal employee.

He’s Mr Reasonable, in fact. Boy howdy, is Bob Denniston reasonable! He is not shrill at all, and we had a lovely chat about Cuba, among other things. But when I called the next day to follow up on House Resolution 2086, the re-authorisation of the Office on National Drug Control Policy, which includes the language, ‘take all steps necessary to oppose any attempt to legalise the use of a substance’ (so tax dollars, for instance could be spent on partisan campaigns against a pro-legalisation candidate), and to follow up on Denniston’s role, if any, in the Super Bowl ‘smoking pot finances bin Laden’ commercials and to ask some budget questions, why, my new pal Bob didn’t call me back. Nor the next day.

In fact, of all the panelists I called for follow-up (their numbers were very thoughtfully included in the press packets), only Igor ever answered his phone. I’ve got eight pages, though, helpfully informing me of the relationship between marijuana use and delinquent behaviours.

Commie Girl in the OC is published by Verso and can be purchased here.

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