Just Say No (to Open Debate)

When it comes to alternatives to the drug war, some warriors would rather you not hear about it

To some of those fighting on the frontlines of the war on drugs, open discussion can be as dangerous as bad smack. Besieged by growing legions who favor the reform of zero-tolerance drug laws -- including prominent conservative judges, police chiefs, physicians and businessmen -- the say-no foot soldiers are increasingly employing their favorite tactic: discredit those who have opposing views.

Alan Robison holds a few of those views. A distinguished professor of pharmacology and former department chair at the University of Texas Health Science Center, Robison is the kind of reform advocate drug warriors loathe, one with impeccable credentials. And as president of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, a group seeking to broaden the debate, the professor poses a special threat.

"The war on drugs is designed to use the criminal justice system to make America drug free," Robison says. "It's a bad policy. It doesn't work."

Beyond agreeing that the drug war has been a failure, members of the Forum and other advocacy groups hold varying ideas on what should replace it. Some focus on easing harsh penalties for simple possession. Others want to implement "harm-reduction" strategies for treating drug abuse that take a more realistic approach to addiction than zero tolerance. Still others would legalize marijuana and control its distribution. Robison himself stops well short of calling for legalization, instead favoring a combination of decriminalization and greater emphasis on education and treatment.

The Forum recently sponsored three debates at Rice University to address the most pertinent questions on drug policy: Who should lead the war on drugs, doctors or the police? Has the war done more harm than good? Should drugs be legalized? To present a cross section of opinion, Robison pulled together law officers, public health officials and academics with widely diverging views.

Prior to the first debate in late August, a number of panelists received phone calls asking them not to participate. Though most refused to back out, not all withstood the pressure. Leonel Castillo, Mayor Bob Lanier's education liaison, had agreed to moderate the second meeting but pulled out at the last minute. According to Castillo, several people suggested he not attend, though he wouldn't name names: "I'd rather not put anybody in a bind by suggesting they said I not do that."

Assistant police chief Art Contreras, whose purview includes narcotics investigations for HPD, was likewise unwilling to identify those who asked him not to honor his commitment to be on one of the panels, but offered a clue. "The people that have a vested interest in keeping the policy as it is today are the ones to look at," says Contreras, who appeared as scheduled at the debate.

Those vested interests include drug-testing companies and anti-drug consulting firms, the sprawling D.A.R.E. bureaucracy, private prison operators, police departments dependent on asset forfeitures and others with a financial stake in maintaining the war on drugs at current levels. "They don't want changes," says Contreras.

One name among the just-don't-say-anything forces did repeatedly surface -- Calvina Fay, executive director of Houston's Drug-Free Business Initiative, a nonprofit organization working to eliminate drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace. Fay phoned a number of the participants and tried to persuade them not to attend the Robison-organized functions. "Ms. Fay was pretty upset," Castillo says. "She doesn't think the matter should even be discussed. She said that Robison and all them were legalizers."

Calvina Fay appears suspicious, and her unease is somehow compounded by her incongruous pre-Halloween jack-o'-lantern earrings, black widow hose and "Cool Ghoul" pin. Before answering questions, she demands to know if the reporter does in fact work for the Press or is simply masquerading as a journalist on behalf of the enemy.

Fay organizes educational campaigns, speaks to employers, edits HDFBI's newsletter and otherwise oversees the group's anti-drug efforts. She joined the organization in 1990 after running her own drug-testing company for several years. During that time, she says, she experienced firsthand the horrors of controlled substances.

Fay says HDFBI operates on a shoestring: Its office is donated, its programs are subsidized and much of its labor is volunteer. Despite several requests, however, she would not allow the Press to see the organization's annual IRS Form 990s prior to our deadline -- a violation of federal law governing disclosure for tax-exempt nonprofits. And while she says no one's making money off of the HDFBI, one of the group's charter sponsors is a drug-testing company, Drug Screens Inc.

To Fay, all efforts to moderate the nation's tough drug laws, including such seemingly innocuous proposals as loosening restrictions on industrial-grade hemp for cultivation, are part of a widespread conspiracy to legalize drugs. "It is very organized," she says with a knowing smile. "It is very deliberate. It is very well funded, too."

As proof, Fay says she's compiled a library of videotapes of the movement's leaders openly advocating the use and legalization of drugs. She regularly monitors the Internet site of the Washington, D.C.-based Drug Policy Foundation, whose work parallels Robison's on a national scale, and has downloaded numerous incriminating documents, including a marijuana smoking instructional. "They have totally polluted the Internet," she says.

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