Just Say No (to Open Debate)

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

Asked about such reform-minded conservatives as William F. Buckley and federal judge and former California prosecutor James Gray, Fay tars them with a big brush. "Since Buckley is a pot smoker, of course he'd like to see it legalized," she says. As for Gray, "I don't know who all he's tied in with."

Locally, Fay points to links between the Drug Policy Forum of Texas and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Ralph Hodges, a member of the Forum executive board, is a former NORML officer and still active in the local chapter. She's got something on Robison, too, but she won't go into details. "There is something specific about him," she says. "I don't want to be the one telling you."

Fay readily admits asking people to reconsider participation in Robison's debates. She herself was asked to sit on a panel but declined because she felt the format -- 30 minutes for reform advocate Kevin Zeese followed by five rebuttal minutes from six different speakers -- was a setup. But she denies that she pressured anyone to withdraw and says she only called to warn panelists of the true nature of the sponsors. She phoned former drug czar Lee Brown, for instance, to advise him on handling the tough questions. "I wanted participants to know who they were dealing with," she says. Besides, Fay adds, some things just aren't worth talking about. "Legalization is not a debatable issue," she says. "It's like debating racism."

Calvina Fay says she's got science on her side. Marijuana is addictive, causes schizophrenia and other mental disorders and has absolutely no medical value, she published in HDFBI's most recent newsletter. Asked the source of the schizophrenia claim, Fay cited an inconclusive 1987 Swedish study published in the prestigious British medical journal Lancet. But in an editorial last November promoting a more rational approach, Lancet concluded that "cannabis per se is not a hazard to society, but driving it further underground may be."

Fay also contends that needle exchange programs to reduce HIV infection and promote treatment for intravenous drug abusers are a failure. As proof, she cites statistics on a Canadian experiment that she just accessed from the Internet. (She promised to share those statistics, but didn't produce them before our deadline.) On the other hand, the federal Centers for Disease Control, in a 1993 report on the 33 needle exchange programs in the United States, argued for expanded services and research and recommended repeal of the ban on "the use of federal funds for needle exchange services."

Short of conclusive evidence, Fay relies mostly on anecdotes. She's heard enough D.A.R.E. graduates say "no" to discredit any studies challenging the program's effectiveness. And she personally traveled to Switzerland and talked to a drug addict, returning with the depressing knowledge that the country's heroin giveaway and needle exchange experiments are a complete failure, even though the Swiss government has expanded the program to a number of cities since its inception.

Fay's tales aren't enough to sway those who spend their lives studying chemical dependency and working in the field. "I think there is pretty much a consensus among the medical and public health professional communities," says Thomas Burks, executive vice president for research and academic affairs at the UT Health Science Center. "Our present national drug policy is not effective."

But consensus apparently doesn't mean the freedom to speak out, and even the slightest deviation from the party line can be politically fatal. Castillo may have been the only scheduled debate participant to change his mind, but the heat has been felt in other quarters. After initially agreeing to host a meeting of health service providers and Kevin Zeese about harm reduction strategies, Covenant House executive director Phyllis Green had a change of heart when someone she won't name described organizers as "a legalization group."

Being painted as a public enemy has proved frustrating for Robison, who says he'll continue his efforts to bring rational debate to the highly charged issue. But it won't be easy, as Barbara Weyland can verify. Weyland, who performs HIV/AIDS prevention education for the nonprofit Montrose Counseling Center and once worked for the city health department, says she's often been stymied trying to discuss the idea of needle exchange, let alone more sweeping reforms. "It's ridiculous to ask for political support for this," she says. "It's a political bullet in the head."

"Nobody wants to talk about it," says Weyland. "They don't want to talk to each other about it. They don't want to talk to you about it. They don't want to talk about it at all.

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