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What Dionne Warwick Reveals about the Drug War

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The American Inquisition got another one last month. Singer Dionne Warwick, who was found with nearly a dozen marijuana cigarettes at the Miami airport recently, had her charges dropped in return for promising to undergo “drug treatment” and to make anti-drug public-service announcements.

Let’s not dwell on the fact that a poor kid found with a few joints in a bad neighborhood isn’t offered the same deal Ms. Warwick got. The two-tier system of punishment for drug offenses is old news. Just look what happens when the child of a senator is caught with contraband.

Rather, let’s look at what Ms. Warwick’s case says about the “war on drugs” per se, which is not a war on drugs at all, but a war on people. This modern-day Inquisition is designed to hunt down drug heretics. Ultimately, its victims are punished not just for what they do, but also for what they think. And what they think are forbidden thoughts about drugs. Instead of believing, say, that a glass of wine is okay, but a joint is bad, they may think that a joint is not much different from a glass of wine. We can’t have people thinking that. That’s why Ms. Warwick was offered the deal. As a celebrity, she is more valuable as a convert than as a convict.

That the Inquisition is aimed at thoughts can be readily seen in the terms of her deal. To avoid trial she had to promise to attend “drug treatment.” What happened there? She certainly was not being treated in the sense that a physician would treat her for a stomach ulcer or high blood pressure. This “treatment” consisted of talk by her and by psychiatrists, psychologists, or other mental-health personnel. What did they say? The experts probably told her lies about marijuana that are only slightly more sophisticated than those told in the government’s old propaganda film Reefer Madness. No one in the room believed them. Ms. Warwick, under obvious duress, perhaps said she was stressed and thought that marijuana would help her to relax. Or maybe they explored how low self-esteem “caused” her to use drugs. Or maybe her interest in drugs was attributed to mental illness. (If so, why is the criminal law involved?) She probably said she sees the error of her ways and won’t do it again. Nationwide, the taxpayers pay hundreds of millions of dollars to finance this inflated nonsense that goes by the name “treatment.” Most of the people there are trying to stay out of jail.

Then there are those public-service announcements. Here is where Ms. Warwick will do public penance by recanting her heresy. She will probably tell kids not to use illegal drugs. How convincing will that be? Until recently, she apparently saw nothing wrong with using marijuana. She “got religion” (an apt phrase here) just after criminal charges were filed against her and then dropped. A coincidence? If not, why should anyone believe anything she says about drugs? It is certainly more likely that she’ll deliver her anti-drug message only because she could go to jail if she refuses. When someone has that strong a personal interest in making a statement that conflicts with her own previous conduct, we are entitled to skepticism, if not outright incredulity.

Does the government think we are so dumb that we will take Ms. Warwick’s public-service announcements seriously? Yes it does. It is striking how much of what the government does is comprehensible once you realize that it thinks most Americans are idiots.

While Ms. Warwick will avoid prison in return for her re-education and public recantation, others are not so fortunate. The prison statistics are a scandal. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1999 more than half (57 percent) of federal prisoners were drug offenders. That’s more than 68,000 people. In 1997, state prisons held 251,200 drug offenders, about 20 percent of state prison inmates. A disproportionate number of those prisoners are black.

Americans are losing their liberty for having unapproved ideas — and acting on them peacefully — about what substances they should be free to ingest. That is unworthy of a self-described free society.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.