Monday, May 29, 2006

A report from the field

Disgraced former ONDCP deputy director Andrea Barthwell recently presented a seminar at a college reunion attended by a friend. It was so interesting I'm going to post it verbatim with some minor identifying information removed. It's priceless really. She blames recreational marijuana consumers who use the herbal plant responsibly and have managed to live full and successful lives for the failure of the war on some drugs.

Barthwell's talk was billed "A Rational Drug Policy for Contemporary America" and the seminar brochure noted that "reunion weekend is a time for reflection and those who were at [the college] during the 60's and 70's participated in a great cutural change that was pivotal in the development of modern drug policy" and that the seminar would "examine the impact of the 60's and 70's on contemporary drug the nation has moved from the 'War on Drugs' metaphor to a public health approach, to prevention, intervention and treatment...", including, perhaps, Barthwell "recall[ing] her campus experiences", something of interest to my SSDP colleagues who asked I take notes on this point especially.

The forty or so seeming boomer alums that came to Barthwell's seminar on Saturday morning may have been expecting the serious discussion of the issues billed in the program, but they were left disappointed and confused. Although the program format (and other seminars) seemed to involve about a 30 - 40 minute lecture followed by a 10 - 15 minute Q & A, Barthwell spoke for almost the full hour, leaving little time for questions, but insuring, as will be explained, that the questions were uniformly hostile or professing utter confusion with her talk.

She began by discussing her appointment history at ONDCP. She was apparently a unconfirmed Clinton holdover, who went to work for Bush and Walters because she was supposedly touched by their personal understanding of "addiction" issues and apparent interest in addiction treatment. She then set out that the National Drug Policy is to reduce use of "drugs" in a measureable manner, especially children using drugs. Her suggestion was that if we could keep adolescents from ever experimenting with drugs, and they could get through adolescence without drug use, then they would stand a good chance of escaping addiction and being drug-free for life.

She presented a series of Powerpoint slides to illustrate her points: that drug use is a socially communicated, epidemic like disease, and follows a gateway theory that at-risk adolescents use "drugs" (never differentiated or being inclusive of alcohol, tobacco, etc) because they are actively recruited by certain kinds of peers (mostly other enthusiastic newbie drug users) and because it gives them pleasure and is anti-authoritarian, which is enticing to middle and high school kids.
Besides the bullet point text of these concepts about which sub- groups of kids are more likely to "experiment" with drugs, Barthwell illustrated her points with graphics of a dirt road, blockaded with traffic cones, going over a cliff.

The whole idea, as she explained it, was that you wanted to set up interventions like drug testing (the traffic cones) so students would not go over the cliff of drug experimentation, abuse and addiction. In these slides we also realized that medical marijuana is a dangerous fraud because of the much greater harm potential of today's super-duper high potency cannabis than the cannabis smoked by boomers back in the day, and the false legitimacy conferred upon the drug by the "medical" claims.

Barthwell repeatedly referred to this as a "recipe for disaster" for the kids and society at large, although she did not explain the precise nature of this "disaster", except by offhand anecdotal references to unnamed kids spiraling down into addiction and ruining their lives, etc. But, kids being kids and some not abstaining after drug education efforts, if they did go over the cliff, according to Barthwell, there would be an "ambulance" of intervention and treatment at the bottom to help them, illustrated by a Powerpoint with an ambulance photoshopped onto a shot of the base of a cliff. A "European" type amubulance, said Barthwell approvingly, which is designed to have an operating room in the amblulance rather than to be a conveyance to a hospital like here, whatever that means in this context, but I fear the ambulance is being driven by Betty Sembler or some coercive youth treatment outfit, but I digress. Probably better we don't peek inside THAT rhetorical ambulance.

Then Barthwell seemed to come around to the ultimate point of her talk, and the closest it came to the issues discussion promised in the seminar brochure, when, at about 55 minutes into the lecture, she crystalized the ultimate problem as somehow being the long-time, non- dependent "closeted" adult (ab)users of marijuana, such as many, if not most in her audience. Because they can use drugs in a non- dependent, "recreational" mode WITHOUT apparent harm to their careers or normal living in the community, send a dangerous and subversive message to kids that "drug use is OK" and not incredibly harmful as claimed, therefore dooming the 10% of kids who are addiction-prone to becoming addicted as a result of their youthful experimentation.

According to Barthwell, adult "recreational" use is also the ultimate source of evil because it is what allows the black market in illegal drugs to exist and be maintained to serve as a trickle-down supply to impressionable kids. Kind of like the guilting logic used by ONDCP a couple of years back in those Super Bowl ads to claim drug users and their black markets support international terrorists and are responsible for drug gang murders in Colombia or something.

The audience in the small lecture hall seemed to be getting increasingly impatient during Barthwell's rambling and simplistic talk. I could see my friend M. across the aisle begin to bristle when Barthwell was discussing why teen drug use was bad because it affforded pleasure to kid's brains and was fashionably (for kids) anti-authoritarian. M. remarked later during lunch that if we had presented term papers which were as free of facts and full of gauzily vague, undefined speculations as Barthwell's talk, we would have been roundly chastized by our intellectually demanding professors (as well as receiving C-'s to F's for our feeble efforts), that's how far off the expected high content Barthwell's talk was.

Glancing at the clock, Barthwell kind of lamely noted her time was up and bumping up against the Alumni Parade, but would take a few questions. One woman said she understood why drugs should be kept away from kids, but that she smoked pot with her college age kid and wanted to know why that was wrong, as Barthwell had implied.

The next woman, who said she was in law enforcement, said the problem was kids being ensnared in the drug trade as 14 year old lookouts, because of the incredible profit. It wasn't exactly clear what her point was, but she seemed to be saying the black market and its corrupt use of kids as runners, dealers and lookouts to "beat the system" which only slapped the kid's hands with brief detention rather than the severe adult penalties was what was wrong, and that Barthwell didn't address the black market.

I was a bit surprised when Barthwell took my question, since she was beginning to look for an exit and I was wearing a "Free Mark Emery" T shirt (my wife insisted/prodded ;-). I noted that the War on Drugs has incarcerated one million people without significantly reducing drug availability and asked that if adult, non-dependent "recrational" users are the ultimate problem, how many more people would we have to incarcerate to significantly depress youth drug use, and why the kinds of non-criminal and successful public health interventions used for tobacco and alcohol that don't involve coercion or incarceration were not more appropriate public health models. She seemed to go into more Oprah-like pop-psych theraputic- sounding rhetorical cartwheels on that, you know, that it wasn't her intent to incarcarate more people, though the incarceration numbers are overstated because of plea bargains etc., but that we needed more intervention to treat people who are in denial about their drug problems, like many in her audience.

Then my friend and classmate M. (who is a research biologist/ university professor) demanded Barthwell to more precisely "define what the problem is". He said she was talking for an hour and he had no clear idea of what the public health problem with "drugs" was as she defined it. He said that her framing of the problem with kids and drugs was so vague he had no idea how severe or what the problem even was. He compared that to something concrete (that he's working on) about obesity and the links to diabetes in the elderly and how adult obesity, like Hep C, is a real ticking public health timebomb, poised to explode in coming years. He asked if obesity and nutrition was a bigger looming public heath issue than drugs and how obesity should be addressed to ward off a possible diabetes epidemic. He asked whether we should go into McDonalds and arrest parents feeding their kids fatty foods and whether that "intervention" was appropriate given Barthwell's logic about drugs.

His clear suggestion, obviously shared by the impatient and disappointed alums around us, was that Barthwell's whole emotional "trouble in River the children" rant was classic political hot air, a diversion irrelevant to real world problems.

Andrea dissembled somemore in an unremarkable manner, and then M. let loose of a final stink bomb, noting that it's a convention of academic research presentations at seminars that when a participant is speaking on a topic in which he has a commerical interest (i.e., like Barthwell's drug policy/treatment consulting firm), such interest is disclosed at the beginning of the talk (not done here), and he just concluded his final comment with, "enough said".

Barthwell, now REALLY looking to wrap things up, abruptly stated that she and her audience were not likely to agree on much and that she was not going to debate the matter further, and the session ended on that contentious note.
I wish someone had been able to capture the Q&A on video. That would have been one for the archives.


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