Big Bong Theory

Welcome to metro Phoenix, or as we like to call it, Amsterzona, the desert dope oasis where vacationers can enjoy super-sized Quad Ganja Lattes at any neighborhood Starbucks Hashhouse.

Visit the Tempe Town Bong, the power center of the Dutch West Tempes district. Enjoy heat stroke, ozone O.D.s, Cardinals football. Hell, you'd enjoy a fatal root canal here in the Valley of the (legally baked Phoenix) Sun. . . .

Whoa, wake up, Pot Tourism Dude! Recreational marijuana use is still illegal in the United States.

Granted, though, thanks to a few Arizonans, that may be true for only a couple more years.

Indeed, America's first legitimate War on the War on Drugs is in full bloom. Seventeen pot initiatives, mostly focused on legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing pot use, have won around the country since 1996.

Polls show Americans now overwhelmingly support the legalization of medical marijuana. And, according to a recent USA Today poll, for the first time ever, more than one-third of Americans believe recreational pot should be legalized.

The unprecedented support for the drug appears to be the product of two phenomena:

First, the well-financed marketing blitz that has accompanied the campaign to soften drug laws has also softened attitudes.

And, more important, with the fading of the World War II generation, the majority of Americans, from baby boomers through Generation Whichever-It-Is-Now, either smoke, have smoked or have friends or family members who smoke or have smoked pot.

According to a 1999 study by the National Academy of Sciences, 68.6 million people, or 32 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 12, had tried marijuana by the mid-1990s.

"It defies demographics," says Jim Molesa, a special agent with the DEA. "It's now familiar to people of every race or economic or social strata."

The War on the War on Drugs will escalate during the national election cycle of 2002, when pro-pot initiatives will appear in critical swing states such as Missouri, Michigan and Florida.

"We are going into the national battleground states," says Sam Vagenas, the former Arizona assistant secretary of state who is now a leader in the national drug-reform movement.

This new war began in Phoenix in 1995 with an unlikely alliance of influential Arizona liberals and conservative libertarians led by one extremely rich Arizonan, University of Phoenix founder John Sperling. The medical marijuana and drug-use decriminalization initiative they wrote in 1995, that was passed by voters in 1996, is now the template for most of the initiatives that will appear around the country next year.

This was not an alliance of stoners (most of the original group say they've never touched the stuff). Sperling, Vagenas and others say they pushed for reform because they believe the drug war has failed, wasting billions of dollars on a bloated prison system that has destroyed millions of lives and families. They want treatment instead of incarceration, they want drug forfeiture laws reformed, they want doctors free to legitimately prescribe marijuana for patients who could benefit from it.

The libertarians just want government out of your home, hookah haven or not.

Opponents say the drug war has kept the drug menace at bay. And you don't stop a war against a societal menace just because the bad behavior has continued. ("Should we legalize murder because people are still murdering?" one deputy county attorney quipped.)

There are better ways to administer pot's key ingredient, delta-9 THC, to sick people than by having them smoke unknown quantities, they say.

Pot makes people bad parents and bad students and it gives them cancer, opponents say. It's a gateway drug for some people, especially children. Going soft on pot sends a mixed message to kids. Dopers are lazy.

In the workplace, pot use has been blamed for everything from train wrecks to the absurdly bad products once made by American automakers. And why else would so many Americans have invested billions in dot.coms that produced nothing?

Whether any of this is true is unknown. The best pot research remains inconclusive, the worst research continues to point wherever the funding source wants it to point. Without definitive science, the debate remains mired in emotional politics deduced from harrowing anecdotes.

At least Arizona has some tangible experience with drug reform.

Proponents of the 1996 Arizona initiative say it was a watershed event in the push toward a more sane national drug policy. It has failed only to the extent it has been hog-tied by opponents.

For example, most likely because the initiative remained too restrictive, no Arizonan in the last five years has received a prescription from doctors for the use of marijuana to cope with AIDS, chemotherapy or glaucoma.

"We passed a medical marijuana initiative, but nobody is getting help," says Dr. Jeffrey Singer, a Phoenix surgeon who helped craft the 1996 initiative. "Doctors are too afraid of federal sanctions against their practice. A doctor could still be ruined for trying to help someone."

Opponents say that 1996 initiative, sometimes referred to nationally as "The Arizona Experiment," is a bust.

Mandatory treatment laws took effect after the 1996 initiative have stolen the incarceration stick from prosecutors. As druggies know they won't do time, recidivism has risen accordingly, prosecutors say.

According to the Maricopa County Attorney's office, 30 percent of drug offenders refuse to participate in treatment. Unable to threaten hard time, prosecutors, judges and probation officers are powerless to argue.

These conflicting views on the success of the Arizona initiative will be paraded through Michigan, Missouri and Florida next year.

Don't be fooled, opponents of drug reform warn voters. All these medical marijuana and decriminalization initiatives are precursors to one goal: The legalization of marijuana in America.

"This movement is a lie," says Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, a leading national drug warrior who was one of three finalists to be the Bush administration's drug czar. "It's not about sick people. It's not about treatment instead of incarceration. It's about making it legal to smoke pot in the United States."

Whatever, Vagenas says.

"I'll say it once again: The legalization of marijuana for recreational use is not a policy goal we are pursuing," he says.

By early next year, both sides on this issue will begin mobilizing like never before.

By 2004, Arizona voters will likely see a revamped version of a failed 2000 initiative that, if passed, will arguably be the most permissive drug legislation in America.

So, Amsterzona is not such a dream/nightmare after all.

"There is no doubt there is momentum for legalization of marijuana," says Romley, who says he will be speaking around the country about what he now likes to call the "Arizona Experience." "It's an idea with a lot of money and marketing genius behind it. It is going to be tough to combat. But there are very, very good reasons this idea needs to fought."

Primo Quad marijuana goes for about $350 an ounce in Arizona. The best stuff is coming from the wily forest gnomes up in Oregon or the elite hydroponic horticulturists of Tempe or Tucson.

If you want quantity instead of quality, there's always the Double-A Mexican weed for $100 an ounce. It's nice for sloppy smokers and for affordable quality time with the aesthetic of communal toking.

That Mexican weed is the stuff the feds have been wound so tight about since Ronald Reagan's War on Drugs, or, as it's known by heads, Reefer Madness II.

Well, actually, they've been wound up about it since Reefer Madness I, back in the mid-1930s, when the feds needed something to keep the Prohibition machine alive after booze was legalized again.

Hemp historians, of which there are surprisingly many, generally describe the early demonization of pot this way:

Almost as ancient as the bulrush (although no one yet has suggested that baby Moses was discovered smoking a joint, some pro-pot literature claims the plant dates back to Biblical times), marijuana has turned up throughout history so often that it's been nicknamed "the herbal Zelig."

In 1930s America, Mexican farm workers smoked marijuana as a cheap out from the withering 14-hour days in the fields. However, unemployed white guys needed those brutal farm jobs again. The feds had an easy target. Those cheap, diligent laborers could be driven back across the border by demonizing their elixir of choice.

White Arizonans seemed particularly ethnically stoked by one factoid: Pancho Villa and his rowdy and sometimes confused border raiders were hard-core dopers. Villa's silly sociopaths also helped dispel the stereotype that potheads were generally harmless.

So, in the subsequent noir propaganda, Mexicans equaled marijuana and marijuana equaled choirgirls morphing into psycho-whores who jumped from penthouses because the toaster told them to.

The drug war was on.

Until the mid-1960s, the harsher laws only had an effect on fringe elements of society, outsiders like Mexican laborers and jazz vipers. Then angry white middle-class college students started getting stoned. (Those stoned baby boomers now run the country.) And government studies estimated that nearly one third of all U.S. soldiers in Vietnam smoked pot.

In the 1960s, pot dealing was a mostly a mom-and-pop operation in Arizona. But a few Anglos such as Christie Bohling tapped into the historically Mexican-run smuggling operation, flying rickety cargo planes into Mexico and returning with tons of that so-so Mexican reefer. They'd usually dump the planes out on reservation land, split up the load and bring it into town.

Arizona college students continued to get stoned through the 1970s.

By the 1980s and '90s, once Reagan's War on Drugs was in full swing, it was nearly impossible to fly a plane across the border without the DEA, Customs and Border Patrol knowing about it.

As Reagan took office in 1980, pot use began a decline that would continue until the mid-'90s, presumably the time pot got hip again in popular music, while the more pot-friendly Democrats focused on other issues.

In the late 1980s, attempting to counter what they saw as increasing hard-drug permissiveness in Arizona, conservatives such as Romley began a concerted "Do Drugs -- Do Time" campaign.

As dope-running became more dangerous in the 1980s, it also became more centralized and professional. In time, Arizona's traffic was ruled by one strong-arm cartel, DEA officials say.

Federal agents cracked down at border checkpoints, so smugglers crossed in the desert. Tunnels were built, first by operatives of the cartels, then later by independent contractors who ran them like toll roads.

And lots of people got killed.

In the last two years, that single cartel has broken up. Now, DEA and customs agents say Arizona's drug traffic is controlled by a loose confederacy of small and mid-sized cartels. Oddly enough, these smaller organizations are working together rather nicely, like businesses in a chamber of commerce.

"They got together and decided it was a lot easier to cooperate," says Molesa.

Drug violence is down without turf wars. Without turncoats and bodies, it's harder for the DEA to get a bead on the organizations working in Arizona.

Outside these organizations, there are a few small maverick smugglers who will deal only in marijuana. They won't deal harder drugs because that would be damaging and immoral, says Molesa.

"You see that idea that pot is different even in the smuggling operations," he says.

White dope dealers have generally focused on the homegrown market, perfecting hydroponic planters and mobile or camouflaged plots in Oregon and northern California.

At the Arizona border, the new trick is for drug dealers to make deals with illegal immigrants wanting to work in the United States: You walk 50 pounds of dope over in this backpack and, if you succeed, we'll take you anywhere you want to go in the United States.

So, Border Patrol agents continue to find dehydrated illegal immigrants who should have been carrying water instead of pot.

"How do people smuggle in drugs into this country from Mexico?" asks U.S. Customs spokesman Roger Maier. "In Arizona, every way you can think of except a submarine."

At the same time, the beefed up U.S. Customs force has continued to set pot-seizure records along the Southwest border.

On July 12, for instance, agents at the Naco port of entry seized a record-shattering 1,501 pounds of pot hidden in the undercarriage of a flatbed trailer.

Hours later, agents in Nogales nabbed a smuggler attempting to enter the country with 857 pounds of weed hidden in the roof of another truck.

Later that same week, officials in San Luis found 678 pounds of the stuff stashed in the hull of a boat hauled by two California men.

And several days later, agents busted 12 smugglers, 11 of them Mexican nationals, trekking through the sweltering desert near Sells carrying 425 pounds of marijuana in their backpacks.

In 2000, Customs agents in Arizona seized nearly 175,000 pounds of pot that would otherwise have wound up in someone's bong, more than triple the amount -- 57,045 pounds -- seized in 1991.

But many Americans on both sides of the Drug War debate don't see victory in those booming numbers.

Throughout the drug war, John Sperling was off making truckloads of money. Then, in the 1990s, Sperling found himself increasingly discussing the futility of America's drug war with friends and in online chat rooms. It seemed like everybody agreed the War on Drugs was a colossal failure.

But everybody just talked. By 1995, Sperling was sick of talk.

Depending on who you talk to, John Sperling is either Dr. Evil or Mr. Smith.

Either way, he clearly was the motivation, both philosophically and economically, behind the modern War on the War on Drugs that began in Arizona.

In 1995, Sperling decided to pull a group of influential Arizonans together to discuss the drug war. Among them were John Norton, former president of the Goldwater Institute and the deputy director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Reagan; Sam Vagenas; noted and fiercely libertarian Phoenix surgeon Jeffrey Singer; and Rudy Gerber, a longtime Arizona superior court and appellate court judge who helped rewrite Arizona's Criminal Code.

"It was an interesting mix of people," Norton says. "You had people from all over the spectrum."

Norton, for example, is a libertarian-leaning conservative. "I basically want government out of the home," he says. While Norton's side of Arizona's Republican Party philosophically disagrees with the big-government aspects of the drug war, the more religious conservatives see marijuana as a moral and societal parasite.

"Obviously, this topic makes for some interesting conversations with fellow conservatives," he says.

About 25 people came to Sperling's first meeting. Legalization was discussed, but the group decided that was too big a step for Arizona voters.

Singer pushed for medical marijuana reform. Gerber, Norton and others focused on decriminalization of marijuana use. They heralded treatment instead of incarceration.

Sperling approached Romley to gain his support. Romley says he read the initiative and "just could in no way support it."

Many others, though, agreed it was time to do battle against the War on Drugs. Norton even talked the increasingly libertarian Barry Goldwater into coming on board.

The group formed a committee to hone the suggestions into an initiative. Arizona would prove to be the perfect testing ground because the state has one of the least-convoluted initiative processes in the country.

Vagenas, with his experience working in the secretary of state's office, became the primary shaper of the initiative's language and battle plan. Sperling's money helped get the needed signatures and air time.

That initiative also became the template for California's reforms of 1996.

Drug war proponents say they were caught off-guard by the power of the movement. Sperling's money financed a massive, extremely professional, sometimes brilliantly maudlin marketing campaign. Unable to tap government monies, police and prosecutors opposed to the initiative say they had little with which to fight.

"We just couldn't compete," Romley says.

"It was pretty overwhelming," says Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is also president of an international association of narcotics officers, with 20,000 members.

The initiative passed two-to-one in Arizona. California's initiative also passed easily.

In Arizona, the new initiative meant people caught with drugs could plead down to a misdemeanor instead of a felony. They would receive treatment instead of prison time.

Romley says that was already happening anyway.

"The initiative just took away the threat of prison time for people who refused to take treatment seriously," he says.

Also, the initiative legalized all Schedule 1 drugs for medical use if the drug is prescribed for a patient by two doctors.

This inclusion of Schedule 1 drugs in the initiative proved disastrous.

"Schedule 1" is a federal term for any drug not deemed by the FDA to have legitimate medicinal use. That includes marijuana, but also hard drugs such as PCP and heroin.

"It should have only said marijuana," Vagenas says. "That was a mistake."

Romley went to the Arizona Legislature and explained that the new laws would effectively make it okay to use any drug in Arizona. Detractors labeled the initiative the "Heroin Legalization Act."

"They sold it as one thing, but the goal was the legalization of drugs," Romley says.

Legislators were generally outraged at what they saw as subterfuge. House and Senate leadership crafted legislation that gutted key provisions of the initiative.

"The feeling, basically, was that the people got duped," says Tom Freestone, a justice of the peace who was a state senator at the time. "The wording freeing up all drugs was buried in the thing. We just wanted to correct that part."

So they did. And voters were generally outraged that legislators gutted their initiative.

Which fired off Phase II of the War. Vagenas and others countered with a new group, The People Have Spoken, which pushed to remove from the state Legislature the ability to gut laws put in place by the voters.

Even stranger bedfellows joined forces for this initiative.

"I will go to my grave believing drugs shouldn't be legalized," Arpaio says. "But when the voters have spoken, they've spoken. I just had to support that initiative."

It passed in 1998.

At the same time, drug-reform initiatives began appearing throughout the West. All were fashioned after the Arizona and California initiatives and focused on the legalization of medical marijuana and the decriminalization of recreational pot use.

Reformers such as Vagenas chose western states because the initiative processes are less stringent and westerners tend to have more relaxed attitudes toward marijuana.

Indeed, according to some polls, more than 40 percent of westerners support the complete legalization of marijuana.

With the help of Sperling and two other absurdly rich philanthropists, Peter Lewis and George Soros (goldfingers collectively known as "The Funders"), 17 drug policy-reform initiatives have passed nationally.

Last year, Arizona voters never saw the next step in drug reform. An initiative that was to appear on the ballot was pulled by supporters when they realized its language was problematic.

Romley had again helped them realize their error. One part of the 2000 initiative, for example, would have allowed drug use merely on the recommendation of a physician, rather than by a doctor's prescription.

This was intended to help Arizona patients actually obtain medical marijuana. Even with the 1996 laws, it remains virtually impossible because, as Singer notes, doctors can still be subject to federal sanctions for prescribing marijuana.

"Doctors could lose access to Medicare and Medicaid, which would effectively gut a practice," Singer says. "So no doctor wants to touch this issue. And that means no medical marijuana that I know of is being given to the people who could benefit from it."

Romley argued that the initiative was far too open-ended. Indeed, one provision effectively freed those who claimed medical drug exemptions from all Arizona drug laws. Romley argued the provision effectively legalized meth labs.

The initiative disappeared.

It won't appear in 2002, Vagenas says, because drug-policy reformers want to focus their energies on the nation's key swing states.

After that is accomplished, though, a revamped version of the 2000 initiative could show up in Arizona during the next election cycle, in 2004.

This time, pot legalization opponents led by Romley say they'll be ready.

Rick Romley thought he was going to be America's next drug czar.

His interview with President George W. Bush's advisers lasted twice the allotted time. Romley thought his ideas melded seamlessly with those of his would-be new boss.

John Walters got the nomination.

Still, Romley believes the ideas he presented to the Bush administration will have some impact on the president's positions regarding the wave of new initiatives.

He appears to be right. As Bush's drug policies take shape, and as anti-initiative forces begin to solidify, much of what they're saying mirrors an essay written by Romley earlier this year called "A Nation and Its Drugs."

If anything, though, the new position is a retreat to safer ground. Romley announces the War on Drugs is a failure. Like reform proponents, he stresses education and treatment over incarceration, going so far as to suggest that health insurers cover prevention-education classes for families.

Indeed, Romley would have been softer on drugs than outgoing Democratic administration czar General Barry McCaffrey.

He does not oppose medical marijuana as long as it's approved by the FDA "with good science." On this point, he is in agreement with Maricopa County's other ball-busting drug warrior, Joe Arpaio.

"If the science is there, fine," Arpaio says.

Basically, it's the new compassionate conservative thing.

And both say that, if Arizonans or Americans want pot legalized, they will go along with the will of the people. All they want, they say, is a fair and open debate in which they can detail the varied problems that would come with legalization.

"Legalization of marijuana is the issue, and it's a fair issue," Romley says. "But call it what it is and let's debate it."

Instead, the debate next year will probably frame up more in shades of gray than the black and white of the Reagan era. Initiative proponents will say the War on Drugs, particularly on pot, is a failure. Give it up. Initiative opponents will say the War on Drugs, particularly on pot, is a failure. Make it better.

After Arizona and California in 1996, Sperling, Vagenas and other reformers say they focused on victories in the other western states.

With a strong base now built in the West, and national poll numbers swinging in their favor, Vagenas, Sperling and others figured the movement was strong enough to begin moving into the biggest Southern and Midwestern states with favorable initiative processes.

Florida should be the rowdiest battleground of 2002, particularly with a Jeb Bush/Janet Reno governor's race taking shape.

In Florida, signatures have been collected to put a drug policy-reform initiative on the ballot. The Florida Supreme Court must now approve the initiative for the 2002 ballot.

Good money is with Vagenas, Sperling and their deep pockets and momentum.

Romley, though, says prosecutors, law enforcement officials and anti-drug crusaders will be mobilizing soon in Florida. Romley just returned from a meeting in Florida of the Drug-Free America Foundation, of which he's a board member. His group and others will be trying to unify the state's police and prosecutors while, at the same time, looking for big-money backers like the pro-reformers have in Sperling and billionaire George Soros.

"The hot spot will be Florida," Romley says. "That's where we'll be telling people about our Arizona Experience."

Vagenas also will be talking about Arizona's drug reforms -- in a positive light. Any negatives, he says, have come from reforms being handcuffed by others.

If the voters will it, those handcuffs in Arizona will probably come off in 2004.

But Romley, Arpaio, the DEA and Customs will be ready when the drug-reform initiatives return to Arizona.

"This is going to be a huge issue for the next several years," Romley says. "We've got to be ready to get the truth out to voters."

"We wouldn't be having success if people didn't fundamentally realize the emperor has no clothes," Vagenas says. "We believe the state initiative victories will translate into state legislative victories, and those state victories will translate into a reorientation of national policy. At that point, we'll be able to have a legitimate national discussion on what to do with the failed War on Drugs."


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