The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, 15 February 2000
On Being Jewish, a Communist, and a Drug Legalizer
I am not now, and never have been, a communist. I am part of a loosely organized group of people who seek to reform American drug laws. This group generally agrees that American drug laws are ineffective and even harmful. They believe that drug abuse should be dealt with as a public health rather than a criminal matter. And some in this group feel that personal drug use should be the business solely of the drug user.
There is no hope that this agenda will be adopted as official American policy. But drug policy reform has recently had some successes primarily ballot initiatives in the District of Columbia and seven states to permit the use of marijuana as a medicine. A few politicians (most notably New Mexico's governor, Gary Johnson), federal judges, and prominent libertarians have endorsed some version of drug policy reform, or even regulated legalization of drugs.
But these signs of change in policy, or at least in attitudes, towards how we handle drugs have aroused stiff resistance. In most cases, in fact, political candidates and office holders compete in touting who is the harshest towards drug users and traffickers, and support sterner drug laws and enforcement. In addition, some officials attack those working for drug policy reform. One such figure is drug czar General Barry R. McCaffrey. McCaffrey reports that there is "a carefully camouflaged, well-funded, tightly knit core of people whose goal is to legalize drug use in the United States."
As a government representative, McCaffrey's words are chilling. By some interpretations, I might be thought to be a part of the group he identifies. If American drug problems worsen, and critics become more vocal, could I become the target of enforcers of drug laws?
As I imagine federal agents knocking at my door some midnight, I am reminded of people I have heard about who have experienced such raids, some of them relatives of mine. I am sensitive to this issue because I am Jewish. Jews were removed from their homes in Nazi Germany, and due to both government-supported and unofficial pogroms in Poland and other Eastern European countries. All four of my grandparents left Eastern Europe early in the last century, partly for such reasons.
When they arrived in the U.S., some of these same relatives, or their children, experienced comparable, if less life-threatening, invasions of their personal lives due to their political beliefs. One of my mother's cousins lost his job in the Philadelphia school system because he had been a member of the communist party.
Of course, many Jews support middle-of-the-road positions, and many radical critics are not Jewish. But Jews seem more often than average to be found on the critics' side. Richard Nixon, for one, felt this was the case in regards to the Vietnam War.
Why are Jews often critical of the establishment? Many Jewish people still recall their immigrant roots, or their status as outsiders in Nazi Germany and other anti-Semitic regimes. Moreover, there is something in the Jewish experience that seemingly makes Jews sympathetic to underdogs and to social experimentation. These attitudes have provided fertile grounds for the development of an outsider, radical perspective.
And the outsider's perspective has often borne fruit. New scientific conceptions and social policies both have come from positions which, initially, were outside the pale. And Jews, like Albert Einstein, have frequently made such contributions.
It now seems that many of those who oppose American drug laws are Jewish. Among these individuals are Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center the primary organization opposing current American drug policy. This Center is funded by George Soros, a Jewish-Hungarian immigrant.
Joseph Califano, a Washington insider and cabinet member under presidents Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter and now the director of a drug research and policy center, has called Soros "the Daddy Warbucks of drug legalization." Evoking the image of an international financier of drugs is an unfortunate way to characterize someone involved in a national policy debate. Simplifying the positions of Soros and Nadelmann as "drug legalizers" is likewise not a sound way to conduct this important debate.
We should guarantee that people with different worldviews and attitudes receive the respect guaranteed in a democratic society. It is only in this way that a viewpoint which is widely accepted, but wrongheaded, can be changed. And disparaging people along with their points of view often has ugly implications.
Stanton Peele is a fellow of the Lindesmith Center in New York City.