Just Say No (to Open Debate)
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.
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.