In their April issue, Harper’s Magazine writer Dan Baum published an article on the Drug War, a piece which included an excerpt from a 22 year old, previously unpublished interview with John Ehrlichman. Ehrlichman was an aide to President Richard Nixon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but is perhaps more famous for being implicated in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in and ensuing scandal, for which he served 18 months in prison for perjury, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy. In Baum’s article (which can be read for free here), he quotes Ehrlichman:
“You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Incendiary stuff. Since Nixon bears a good portion of responsibility for the Drug War by pushing for and signing into law the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, this kind of revelation from a key figure in the Nixon White House (one that he trusted enough to make a part of his cover-up) should be shocking – infuriating, even. It should send us scrambling to drastically revise our drug laws, because why the hell should we stick with policies instituted largely to persecute hippies and black Americans? It should be a big deal.
That this article hasn’t sparked a frenzy could lie with its credibility, which is difficult to verify since Ehrlichman has been dead since ’96 (R.I.P., fucker). Or maybe it’s an ends/means problem – the public views the ends of the Drug War as legitimate even if it came to fruition for unscrupulous reasons. But the positive opinion on marijuana legalization, which has been rising steadily over the years (especially amongst young adults), would probably discredit that argument.
Or it could be a deeper issue – perhaps something is terribly wrong with our drug policy, and even with the way we think about drugs and drug policy. Sophomores Stanley “Caveman” McAfee and Daniel Miles, collectively known as “Staniel,” certainly lean towards that answer. McAfee and Miles are the respective president and vice-president of the College of Charleston’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), and that concern about disinformation and misguided taboos is what pushes them to lead their chapter in the way that they do. “I think SSDP’s goal, at least on this campus, is to make the campus a safer place for people who do choose to use drugs, and a place where people can discuss drugs and get the most accurate information possible about drug use,” said McAfee.
“There’s a pretty strong education component,” agreed Miles. “What I think is important about SSDP is that you’ve got to let people know what’s going on…I think generally people of our age know that drug laws are kinda fucked, but don’t necessarily know the first thing about [them].”
McAfee and Miles might seem like an odd pairing. McAfee is a double major in Astrophysics and Physics, while Miles is double majoring in Political Science and Philosophy. But they both got invested in the club at the same time in the same way: an advert for the club with a picture of Bill Murray, and a conference in Washington D.C. “The first meeting, [the previous leaders] said ‘we’re going to this conference in like a month, you guys should go.’ And not having joined any student org before that…I thought ‘y’know what, sure!’” McAfee recounted. Both of them describe the D.C. conference as the crystallizing moment of their passion for and investment in drug policy; Miles described it as “the best experience [he’s] had in college.”
Under McAfee and Miles, the organization has been especially active. The members of CofC’s chapter of SSDP are headed to D.C. in two weeks for the SSDP National Conference, and this past November they went there as part of the Drug Policy Alliance’s International Drug Policy Reform Conference. But they’ve been putting in work here on campus as well; last semester, they pushed a bill through student government that expanded the College’s Good Samaritan medical amnesty policy.
Miles explained: “The example we always use is if two kids are drinking underage, if one of those kids drinks too much and needs medical attention, then the Good Samaritan [policy] allows for the other person to call public safety to get that person the help they need without facing charges. What we did was we expanded that – it only covered alcohol before, and we got it to cover alcohol and all other drugs.” That big victory has hardly slowed them down; along with working out the logistics for the national conference this semester, SSDP has been working on getting access to Naloxone on campus, a drug that Miles describes as “the best tool to combat the heroin/opioid epidemic.”
When asked what makes them passionate about drug policy in particular, the answers from McAfee and Miles were very much informed by the interests of their major and prospective career: Miles mentioned that SSDP – leading this chapter, interning with them this summer, and hopefully being on their board of directors in senior year – will be a springboard to the rest of his career, saying that “as someone who’s always been politically inclined, it just seemed like a natural step.”
McAfee acknowledged that drug policy and Astrophysics/Physics don’t seem to go hand in hand, but pointed out that acclaimed astrophysicist Carl Sagan was a member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and his widow sits on that organization’s board of directors. McAfee also explained, with gusto, that much of his disdain for current drug policies is informed by his scientific background: “As a scientist, it just doesn’t make sense, almost all of the empirical data doesn’t back any of the policies. And as someone who values justice and fairness, it doesn’t make sense, it’s unfair to minorities, it’s a huge drain on resources, almost none of it meshes with anything I value.” Later, he added that our current drug policies “[fly] in the face of science, in the face of evidence, of reason.”
I asked the two what they thought about the Ehrlichman quote. They both agreed that it was indicative of the Drug War as a whole, and the sentiments they’ve developed towards it. “You can give this, that and the other reason – there are plenty – for why drug policy and the status quo should be amended,” said Miles, relishing the opportunity to tear into government misconduct and incompetence. “But not all of them are as particularly anger-inducing as [Ehrlichman’s claim], because it’s essentially saying that the government literally lied to the face of the entire American people, and has been for the last 40 years. And we have the highest incarceration rate in the entire world, we have this permanent underclass in our society that goes in and out of jail, we have all of these social problems that could have not been there, but are there – because of some dick in Washington.”
SSDP is no stranger to dicks in government – McAfee noted that Michael Mithoeffer, a Mt. Pleasant-based psychotherapist who has been researching MDMA’s therapeutic effects on PTSD patients and a guest speaker for the organization, had his applications to use MDMA rescinded because a government-funded research group had “discovered” that the drug caused holes in the brain. When Mithoeffer investigated that claim, he found that “they weren’t actually using MDMA, but outrageously high doses of methamphetamine, and cranking the gain up on their [machines] to show giant holes in the brain that weren’t actually there at all.” This, for McAfee, is also indicative of the way drug policy has been approached over the past 40 years – misinformation, outright lies, unethical research and bad decisions.
A more humorous exchange with government that was nonetheless telling came last semester after the 9/20 Day of Action, an event intended to raise awareness of the medicinal uses of psilocybine mushrooms. For this occasion, the pair drafted a letter about psilocybine’s important medical value, had the club’s members sign it, and sent the letter to City Hall and the Statehouse; the latter replied later. But Miles claimed that “they didn’t even use the right drug in their response. It was one of those form letters like ‘we’re so glad to see the youth participating in the civic process; however, I do not change my opinion on cannabis.’ And I was like, ‘well, that’s great, how about psilocybine?’”
McAfee and Miles also discussed what they consider the best alternative to the Drug War. Both of them threw their weight behind the Portuguese model of decriminalizing all scheduled substances and treating drug use as an issue of public health, rather than an issue of criminal justice, as well as adopting harm reduction policies like needle exchanges. They showed some disparity of opinion on the matter of drugs that fall outside of the cannabinoids: Miles suggests that though the idea is extreme, full legalization of all drugs may be an ideal for the far-flung future, while McAfee (though he claimed to be playing devil’s advocate) noted that it was important to distinguish between marijuana and other drugs because of the former’s utter harmlessness on the issue of full legalization. But they both felt that decriminalization was a good direction for drug policy.
Despite this superficial disagreement, the two are incredibly close – and when asked for any final comments, Miles and McAfee responded unanimously: “Fuck the drug war.”