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Saturday, June 20th, 2009
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This Is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America

by Ryan Grim

Just Say Know

A review by Gerry Donaghy

Back in March of this year, President Barack Obama's team hit on a novel way to interact with the vox populi by holding a virtual town hall meeting over the Internet. Most of the questions dealt with issues he had addressed while on the campaign trail: health care, the mortgage crisis, education, and chronic unemployment. One question that made it past the vetting process asked if marijuana legalization couldn't be a tool for creating both jobs and tax revenue for the government. The President quickly laughed the issue off, saying that he "didn't think the strategy was good." It was a frustrating response for legalization advocates, and perfectly illustrated the disconnect between their ideals and political reality. If Obama had given even a hint of entertaining the idea, the outcry from Republicans would have been deafening and distracting. In Obama's political calculus, it's easier to deal with a bunch of disgruntled potheads then it is to deal with the minority party.

Huffington Post correspondent Ryan Grim's book, This Is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America, explores the myriad of disconnects that inhabit our conventional wisdom when it comes to drug use and drug policy. Why is it, for example that in order to receive the mandatory minimum jail sentence for powder cocaine you must possess 500 grams, whereas for crack cocaine the amount is only 5 grams? How can a plan for addict treatment, which was effective in reducing use at the expense of only $34 million, be thrown out in favor of a plan featuring military tactics (raids and interdictions) and mandatory minimum jail sentences, with less demonstrated efficacy and a price tag of $783 million? Why is it that Drug Abuse Resistance through Education (aka D.A.R.E., founded by notorious L.A. police chief Daryl Gates) seems to elevate kids' interest in drugs instead of discouraging it?

Grim, who has waded through a staggering amount of research, ranging from government statistics on drug use in America to the impact of the North America Free Trade Act on the drug trade between the U.S. and Mexico, presents his results in a way that is informative, yet neither strident nor didactic. He is equally quick to point out that in California, while some medical marijuana dispensaries can be overly generous with whom they distribute to, one shop alone contributed approximately $875,000 to the state's tax coffers. His reporter's instinct keeps the book from becoming mired in either partisan or policy arguments. Instead, he sticks to facts that show how our country's relationship with drugs is frequently adversarial, and frequently motivated by passion rather than evidence, and that it is always, in his words, a "never ending game of Whac-A-Mole."

There are two aspects of Grim's research that I wish would receive more attention in the mainstream media. One is the role that large pharmaceutical companies play in shaping our drug policy. It is considerably hypocritical of government and Big Pharma to tell us that, on one hand, methamphetamine should be illegal, while another stimulant, Ritalin, should not only be legal but in fact the drug of choice for issues such as ADD. One troubling facet of this relationship is how the manufacturers and distributors of legal drugs (such as R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Anheuser-Busch, GlaxoSmithKline, and Pfizer) help fund The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which endlessly reminds us what our brains look like on drugs — at least the illegal ones, anyway. While the Partnership has distanced itself from its alcohol and tobacco sponsors, Grim makes it clear that we won't be seeing any "This is your brain on Prozac" ads anytime soon.

The other aspect I wish would receive more coverage is arguably the real reason for the decrease of illegal drug use by teens in this country: not the effectiveness of programs like D.A.R.E. or interdiction, but the fact that teens are now finding easier ways to get high, usually right in their own medicine cabinets. Of course, that road leads right to the steps of Big Pharma, which has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo with regards to the drug war. It seems, for them, it's not what you take, or what you do to your body in the process, but who gets to be the dealer. In 21st century America, Merk and Pfizer have replaced Superfly as our dealer of choice.

To be sure, This Is Your Country on Drugs is not a book to read if you are looking for solutions in policy. Grim writes: "What would happen if drugs were legalized? Well, it happened. And, history suggests that if we ever legalize them again, it won't be long before we ban them again." Ultimately, this contradiction prevails through this inquiry, and while Grim doesn't attempt to offer solutions to the problems that illegal drugs create, he does provide a lucid analysis of the results of our irrational relationship to them.

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