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Medical Cannabis Media Coverage

Op-Ed : THE POT PERPLEX - Mr. Soros's agenda and the voters'

New Yorker Magazine
January 6, 1997

ONE of the most surprising results of the November election- very nearly its only surprising result-was the passage in California and Arizona of ballot initiatives designed to permit sick people to use marijuana. The result went against the apparent mood of the electorate-to wit, a sort of center-right status-quo complacency, vaguely hospitable to conservative attitudes (for "family values," against leniency toward criminals, etc. and suspicious of anything visionary. President Clinton's political comeback was generally agreed to be a consequence of his success in coopting attitudes like these. And when Bob Dole, after weeks of flailing about, finally found an issue he thought might give him some traction, that issue turned out to be marijuana. (Mr. Dole's only effective television spot featured an old MTV clip of a smirking Mr. Clinton saying he wished he'd inhaled.) Throw in the fadeout of the Grateful Dead, and there was little reason to expect 1996 to shape up as a pot-friendly year.

Nevertheless, the initiatives passed resoundingly by fifty-six to fortyfour per cent in California, and by about two to one in Arizona. This turn of events has not been an easy one for the hard-liners-those who believe that the possession of a pinch of marijuana should remain a felony and that its cultivation or sale in larger amounts should continue to be treated as a crime on a par with, say, murder-to explain. Having long taken it for granted that the debate over drug policy pits the hardworking, taxpaying public against the out-of-touch cultural (or countercultural) elite, they now confront the possibility that they no longer monopolize the populist side of the argument.

After the shock of November 5th, the drug warriors regrouped. In December, the Senate Judiciary Committee mounted a hearing whose title-"A Prescription for Addiction? The Arizona and California Medical Drug Use Initiatives"-forthrightly dispensed with any pretense of venhandedness. So did the witness list, which consisted of five opponents of medical use and one proponent. The committee chairman, Orrin Hatch, of Utah, began the proceedings with a statement summarizing most of the testimony that followed: the initiatives passed because voters were bamboozled; the "no" side was overwhelmed by sinister big money, especially the sinister big money of George Soros; and, anyhow, marijuana has no medical use.

Senator Hatch charged, for example, that "the philanthropists of the drug legalization movement pumped millions of dollars in out-of-state soft money into stealth campaigns designed to conceal their real objective: the legalization of drugs." It's true that some of the supporters of the medical-use initiatives favor legalization, but most, including Mr. Soros, do not; and permitting sick people to use marijuana to relieve their discomfort (just as morphine, cocaine, Demerol, and many other powerful drugs are now routinely used) is a "first step" toward legalization only in the sense that movie ratings are a"first step" toward abolishing freedom of expression. The money raised by the "yes," campaigns-a little under two million dollars in California, about half that in Arizona-undoubtedly helped, but the sums were a tiny fraction of the political cash that washed over those states during the election. (In California, more than a hundred million dollars was spent on ballot initiatives alone.) In any event, few minds appear to have been changed: the polls showed that large majorities favored the initiatives before a penny was spent. The polls also showed that the voters clearly understood what they were voting on.

The attempt to turn Mr. Soros into a villain is especially preposterous. Mr. Hatch approvingly quoted a description of him as the "sugardaddy of the legalization movement," and one witness, Thomas Constantine, the administrator of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, taxed "billionaire financier and legalization advocate George Soros" with being among those who have "cynically used the suffering and illness of vulnerable people to further their own agenda." The most excitable journalistic crusader against medical marijuana, the Times' A. M. Rosenthal, has gone further, explicitly likening Mr. Soros's "gobs of money" to "the fortunes manipulated by drug criminals," and his views to "preaching the benefits of slavery."

Whoa. Mr. Soros is indeed a "billionaire financier," but he is also (in quantitative terms, at least) the most generous man in the world, and he is surely one of the world's most useful citizens. He has spent, as Judith Miller reported in the Times the other day, "$1.1 billion' most of it since 1989 trying to transform the former Soviet bloc into thriving capitalist democracies." He is indeed from "out of state," but he can't help that: he was born in Hungary, and was a refugee from both Nazism and Communism. In a letter to the Times politely correcting some of Mr. Rosenthal's more pinwheel-eyed accusations, he summarized his views this way: "I am not for legalization but for a saner drug policy."

This-apart from helping the many thousands of people who have diseases like .AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, and arthritis and find that smoking marijuana relieves their sufFering-is Mr. Soros's "agenda." As he put it in his letter to the Times, 'We need a free and open debate on all alternatives to current drug policies."

Mr. Hatch inadvertently hinted at why there hasn't been such a debate when, at the hearing, he offered a bit of truncated history. "Between 1987 and 1988," he said, "the D.E.A. and NORML-the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a private advocacy group-"under the guidance of an administrative law judge, collected all relevant information on the alleged medical benefits of marijuana. The D.E.A. then conducted a comprehensive examination of that data in order to determine whether those allegations had merit. At the end of that study, the D.E.A. concluded that there was no legitimate medical use for marijuana." What the Senator omitted to mention was that the judge himself, Francis L. Young, had actually come to a quite different conclusion. "The evidence in this record clearly shows that marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people, and doing so with safety under medical supervision," Judge Young wrote. '`It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for the D.E.A. to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits in light of the evidence." Judge Young's political superiors simply overruled him.

Is it too far-fetched to suggest that the medical-use initiatives might have been partly a protest against the bipartisan hypocrisy of baby- boomer politicians (the President, the Vice-President, the Speaker of the House, and the keynoter of the Republican National Convention, to name four) who "experimented with" marijuana in their wayward youth (did they also "experiment with" burglary and assault?) and now refuse to countenance even a discussion of amending the laws that would have sent them to prison had they been caught? Perhaps. But such a discussion is now in prospect, thanks to the voters of California and Arizona-the grass roots, so to speak. And thanks to George Soros, who stepped into the breach when Western governments responded so unimaginatively to the disintegration of Communism, and who, in response to another abdication of governmental responsibility, has stepped into the breach again.-HENDRIK HERTZBERG