Thursday, October 9, 2008

The whole story 3

Every once in awhile, even today, one of my friends will bring up the time my column was absent from the Hampshire Review. The column that didn’t appear was “Amerika,” my account of the incident at the drug checkpoint, the weekend of the Buffalo Gap bluegrass festival.

When I took the column into the Review office on Monday morning, Charlie was out in the reception area. He looked upset, and took me back to his office, and demanded to know what had happened Saturday night, because he’d already had a call from the state police lieutenant saying that they were sorry that they hadn’t arrested me for interfering with a police action.

I scoffed. They were going to arrest me? They were the ones who were breaking the law, and wiping their muddy jackboots all over the Constitution (about six months after this event, the US Supreme Court ruled in a similar case, also involving drug-sniffing dogs at a police checkpoint, that the police had violated citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights).

We debated the issue for awhile, with Charlie making the point that he had to be very delicate in his dealings with the state police, because if they didn’t like what he put in the paper, they were perfectly free to withhold information from Review reporters, which would put the Review at a severe disadvantage in reporting crime stories. Since I didn’t have a background in mainstream media, this revelation came as kind of a shock. I had never fully realized before how much the government controls what information goes out to the public, even in a local situation like this.

Finally, Charlie read the column. When he finished, he said, “I’m not printing this.”

I was flabbergasted. I hadn’t written anything objectionable in the column, just a straightforward account of the incident at the checkpoint, closing with the observation that if this had happened thirty years before, the cops may have picked up young potheads Al Gore and George Bush, who at that moment were running for president.

I didn’t bother to try to find out what exactly he thought was wrong with the column, because I was on my high, principled horse. So I just told him that I wasn’t going to write another column, and he’d have to run that one, or nothing, and left.

Two days later, my counterpart’s column appeared on the editorial page, but there was nothing from me. I had thought maybe Charlie would run an old column, one of my thought pieces or something. The absence caused a little hubbub in the community, because at that time, the column was about at the height of its popularity. The hospital issue was still hot, and we were right in the middle of the 2000 presidential campaign, so people expected me to be out there defending the Democratic position, not only nationally but locally. Friends called to see what happened.

As I talked to people, I realized that I’d made a mistake, and my principles were no substitute for the rare position I held of being able to argue a progressive point of view in a mainstream media outlet. So I swallowed my pride and went back in to talk to Charlie, who was also in an accommodating mood, and he welcomed me back—with one condition.

As it turned out, the reason he turned down the column didn’t have anything to do with my encounter with the police. What he had objected to was the fact that I had mentioned that Ralph Nader—whom I had endorsed in May—was advocating the legalization of marijuana. Charlie thought that if he published that column, people would think that he himself was promoting drug legalization.

Of course, this struck me as irrational nonsense, and I told him so. But Charlie was adamant. I was never to write about drugs again—at least, if I was saying anything positive about them. I could say all the negative stuff I wanted.

In the course of this conversation, Charlie revealed something that I found astonishing: he and Sallie, who are just about my age, had never experimented with illegal drugs. Maybe it’s the people I tend to hang out with—musicians, artists and assorted radicals—but I couldn’t recall ever meeting anyone from my generation, who came of age in the ‘60s, who hadn’t at least toked on a joint once. And if the Sees are a rarity among baby boomers for their pharmaceutical innocence, polls show they’re also in the minority of the total American adult population, most of whom have at least tried marijuana (which, simply put, is why our drug laws are so absurd). So I couldn’t help thinking as we talked, who’s the real weirdo here?

Nevertheless, we both, for our own reasons, wanted to work things out, and the next week, I wrote a sheepish column explaining how discretion is often the better part of valor, and we all have to compromise sometimes, and too bad for all the wingnuts celebrating my demise that I’m back.

But I carried the frustration about not being able to write about drugs through the rest of my years at the column. You see, I was kind of an expert on the subject, not only because of my own personal experience, but because I’d actually been writing about it for years before I moved to West Virginia. Back in DC, I had co-founded a local group, DC Citizens for HEALTH, with Eric Sterling of the National Drug Strategy Network, Sam Smith, editor and publisher of the Progressive Review, and Al Jardine, a community activist from Anacostia, advocating a public health approach to the drug problem, instead of the criminal justice approach that was ruining so many lives. We had sponsored mayoral debates in which all the candidates essentially agreed with our position.

For the rest of the time that I wrote the Review column, I would bring Charlie studies and data showing the benefits (medicinal and otherwise) of drug use, and the downside of the punitive approach to drugs--including a couple of studies that indicated that the DARE program in the schools, for which he was a great champion in the paper, actually encouraged children to experiment with drugs. But Charlie wasn’t interested. And I never wrote about drugs (directly, at least) again.

But in recalling this history the other day, it suddenly occurred to me why Sallie had rejected my op-ed about Tuesday’s Supreme Court hearing. And it was because she was trying to do the right thing.

I’ll explain, next time.

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