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12 May 2006

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Dramatis Personae

* A.M. ("Abe") Rosenthal, longtime journalist and editor for The New York Times, in 1996 columnist for The New York Times, later (after forced retirement) columnist for The New York Daily News. Died Wednesday 10 May 2006, age 84.

* US Army General (retired) Barry McCaffrey, in 1996 President Clinton's federal Drug Czar -- Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a cabinet-level White House agency. Now on-camera war affairs consultant for CNN.

* Marcus Conant, MD, Medical Director of the Conant Medical Group, one of the largest private AIDS practices in the United States, Professor at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco, author or co-author of more than 70 publications on AIDS treatment.

Conant (represented by the American Civil Liberties Union) was one of several physicians suing the Drug Czar in 1996 over a physician's First Amendment right to discuss the medical advisability of marijuana with patients.

In the course of the federal lawsuit (Conant v. McCaffrey, later Conant v. Walters), the recorded telephone conversation below was subpoenaed and made public.

* George Soros, Hungarian-born American financier, one of the wealthiest human beings on Earth, contributor to progressive causes including decriminalization of drugs, harm-reduction drug-reform initiatives, and the unsuccessful effort to defeat George W. Bush Jr. in the 2004 presidential campaign.

* "Sterling" -- pretty certainly a reference to John Sperling, billionaire founder of the get-a-degree-at-home University of Phoenix, with Soros a major contributor to progressive and drug-reform causes.

* Timothy O'Leary -- guessing, hoping he meant Timothy Leary, Harvard psychologist and LSD advocate.

* Voters of Arizona -- passed a first-of-its-kind drug reform state law, de-emphasizing prison and emphasizing medical treatment for addicts and drug abusers.

* Voters of California -- passed a law legalizing marijuana for medical purposes

* Rockefeller -- I don't know which one he's talking about, either.

* Cheech -- Richard "Cheech" Marin, actor, comedian

* Chong -- Tommy Chong, Canadian-American actor, comedian, recently served nine months in federal prison for manufacturing and selling fancy glass bongs.


Harper's Magazine
(New York City, USA, founded 1850)
November 2000


From a 1996 conversation between "drug czar" Barry R. McCaffrey and A.M. Rosenthal, then a New York Times columnist, just after California and Arizona passed referendums legalizing the medical use of marijuana. A tape recording of this conversation was an exhibit in the matter of Dr. Marcus Conanat, et al. v. Barry R. McCaffrey, et al., a lawsuit that sought to block the government's stated intention to prosecute doctors who discussed with patients marijuana's potential benefits; on Sept. 7, a federal judge ruled that such prosecutions would violate the First Amendment. According to his office, McCaffrey routinely recorded telephone conversations with journalists, often without their knowledge, to ensure that he was not misquoted.

~ ~ ~

A.M. ROSENTHAL: I'm calling because I know you have been watching this thing in California and Arizona as carefully as I should have, but, ah, it's really terribly worrisome. Maybe I'm overdoing it in my head, but --

BARRY R. McCAFFREY: I think not.

ROSENTHAL: Okay. Let me ask you one or two things. We can speak on any basis you want.

McCAFFREY: On the record.

ROSENTHAL: Yeah, because I really need somebody, I need a little help -- I want to show the opposition to this. Where do we go from now? How would you describe this legislation in terms of impact on the drug war and so on? I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I'm trying to write a column in which I want to say that this thing has been done while the rest of us, too many of us, not including you, were asleep. That it shows every sign that in the next two years they will get ready to put this proposition on other ballots. And, uh, where do we go from here? First of all, what do we do about these, what happened in California and Arizona, as far as you're concerned? I know somewhere you said that federal law still applies. Tell me what you think, and I don't have to put words in your head.

McCAFFREY: Well, we're enormously concerned about it. The way I heard about it the first month or two was the same way California voters and Arizona voters reacted to it: this doesn't sound like a very serious proposition. It's smoking dope to manage pain for older people with terminal cancer or young guys with AIDS, and so even though it sounds like bad medicine, why get too energized about it? That's sort of the way it came to me. And then there was -- the second caution was -- well, this is local politics and they'll sort it out and none of them are very worried about it, so why should you be? And then when I had my lawyer pull it apart and we analyzed its probable impact and then talked to some serious people in the two states involved, we got enormously energized about the whole situation. And I got the President involved and --

ROSENTHAL: Did Clinton campaign against it?

McCAFFREY: Both Clinton and Dole made statements, and Clinton obviously empowered all of us to get out there and try and educate the people. And I went and got three former presidents to sign a letter. We had Justice put out a legal opinion that didn't refer to the referendums but did refer to medical use of marijuana. And then we --

ROSENTHAL: You mean, saying it's not legal?

McCAFFREY: Yeah, saying, look, we've been through this before, federal law and federal directives will remain unaffected by any referendum, and federal law will remain operative and dominant over any state law. So now, finally, the problem was getting the facts out in front of the people in California and Arizona, but unfortunately, at that point, we had this bizarre situation where there was a lot of money, millions of dollars, pushing a referendum from out-of-state individuals, and not many of them. I think it was essentially six people who bankrolled the whole thing.

ROSENTHAL: And who were they?

McCAFFREY: It's George Soros. It's a guy named Sterling, there's -- Rockefeller was one of them.

ROSENTHAL: Which one?

McCAFFREY: Golly, I can't keep them straight.

ROSENTHAL: The other day I wrote something, I mentioned Soros -- this guy is really gonna cause us -- is causing trouble in this. He does all these things. He is supporting the pro-drug foundations.

McCAFFREY: I agree absolutely.

ROSENTHAL: All over the country.

McCAFFREY: He's at the heart and soul of a lot of this. It's alleged he spent 15 million bucks plus --

ROSENTHAL: The heart and soul of what, the initiatives?

McCAFFREY: Yeah, this is -- We're now going to see this come up all over the country. And this is not paranoia on my part, this is a national legalization-of-drugs strategy. It's not paranoia on my part. In other words, I see this not as two medical initiatives dealing with the terminally ill; I see this as part of a national effort to legalize drugs, starting with marijuana, all over the United States.


McCAFFREY: I think that's what's at stake in these two cases. It was absolutely cunning. It's worth a graduate-school paper to examine how they did it. They did polling, they determined what initiatives will work with the people, the voters in those states. The one in Arizona was even more byzantine than the one in California. California is a little bit Cheech and Chong, but the one in Arizona, if you read that initiative --

ROSENTHAL: Let me jump in for a little bit. You say the federal laws against the growing and use or possession of these things -- marijuana -- will still stand. Now what is it according to the proposition -- ? As I gather, it is California law now that you can do it. Do they have to pass a specific law? I think this does it.

McCAFFREY: Well, first of all, the jury is out. But I think what's going to happen in California is if you're growing, if you're sitting out in the middle of the national forest growing a hundred pot plants that are worth 10,000 bucks apiece, you're still gonna get arrested, and then you're gonna have to try and demonstrate that you were not in violation of existing California law and that you're covered in some way by this new initiative.

ROSENTHAL: You said the national park, but suppose someone is growing it in his back yard?

McCAFFREY: Well, how about the balcony in an apartment building overlooking Los Angeles airport, 'cause you're gonna see that in about another three weeks too.

ROSENTHAL: No question about it, they've got a victory on their hands and they're gonna use it. Of course they may decide to play it low-key and --

McCAFFREY: Well, Abe, the other thing I'd suggest to you, though, is legitimate doctors are not going to be using this. Some of them will be if they think there's money in it, but --

ROSENTHAL: But, Barry, in California, you don't need a prescription, a written prescription.

McCAFFREY: You need a doctor to recommend it. And so initially, are you going to go to a cancer doctor as a fourteen-year-old and get him to recommend marijuana? I think 85 percent of the people in California aren't going to smoke dope and aren't going to allow their kids to do it. And physicians aren't going to recommend it. I mean, it's just -- it's counterintuitive to think that some intelligent woman or man who is a physician and trained in the healing arts is going to recommend smoking pot.

ROSENTHAL: Well, you're right, but --

McCAFFREY: But some people are, and the real question is what are we going to do about them, and the answer is we don't know but for sure we're not getting rolled on this issue because this isn't medicine, this isn't science, this is legalization of drugs, and we think kids are at risk.

ROSENTHAL: Well, we got caught off base in California --

McCAFFREY: Yes sir. Absolutely we did.

ROSENTHAL: And I think the best thing we can do is say we were caught off, those of us who were against it.

McCAFFREY: I agree.

ROSENTHAL: And pull ourselves together.

McCAFFREY: I agree, Abe. I've gone a long time in life not getting killed in combat because I pay attention to details. And you do what you're supposed to do, and if you do it regularly you don't get caught off guard. We don't want to go back to 1979, when we had 25 million Americans regularly using drugs, when we had a third of the armed forces using drugs and the NYPD using drugs and we had the faculty of universities using drugs.

ROSENTHAL: Are you talking about the seventies?

McCAFFREY: Yeah, 1979 apparently was the peak year of drug abuse in America. And it didn't work out, and it left us with hundreds of thousands of people dead and billions of dollars -- From 1990 through this year, we lost 100,000 dead and $300 billion from the abuse of illegal drugs in America.

ROSENTHAL: And what we've got to do, I mean, not we, but all of us, is convince people of the connection between the California initiative, which they still see as a pot initiative, and the 100,000 dead.

McCAFFREY: Yeah, that's right.

ROSENTHAL: That's what we have to do.

McCAFFREY: Yeah. You know the other thing we gotta say is, Do we want to promote a drugged, stoned America? Or do we want to promote one that's involved in athletics and academic achievement and sensitivity to other people and their problems? Or do we want to do Timothy O'Leary?

ROSENTHAL: We've got to get some way also to make it socially unacceptable. So how to do this except by pounding at them I don't know.

McCAFFREY: Well, [inaudible].

ROSENTHAL: No, no. What? No, I mean for rich people.


ROSENTHAL: -- who will never wind up in the gutter --

McCAFFREY: Yeah, exactly.

ROSENTHAL: -- who are fed, and that's what made Soros [inaudible]. It's socially unacceptable somehow for people to use their money in that way.

McCAFFREY: Yeah, I agree. Well, you know, we've done it, we've started to do it with smoking cigarettes. We've started to do it with driving drunk on Saturday night -- it's no longer a manly, kind of humorous thing to do; it's something you ought to be ashamed of. And if you're at a cocktail party in New York City now or in a military staff call, if you light up a cigarette you identify yourself as being a dull-witted lad or lass.

ROSENTHAL: Well, that's right, but how do we -- I mean, as a society and the people who are anti-drugs -- make it socially unacceptable not to smoke pot but, but to give money to these causes?

McCAFFREY: Yeah, I agree.

ROSENTHAL: It's terribly important.


ROSENTHAL: And I think that is really something that you and the President ought to be doing.

McCAFFREY: That's another idea, Abe. I have not heard that. I will take that aboard, that's a very good thought.

ROSENTHAL: If it hadn't been for Soros --


ROSENTHAL: -- and a couple of other people that I run into at parties all over the place and everybody admires, blah, blah, blah --


ROSENTHAL: -- this would not have passed.

McCAFFREY: Yeah, I agree.

ROSENTHAL: And we all know that.

McCAFFREY: Yep, absolutely.

ROSENTHAL: And I think we have the right to say -- You know, I wouldn't let a pornographer in my house, I wouldn't, I really will not allow -- I'm just saying this to you -- George Soros in my house.

McCAFFREY: I absolutely agree. He ought to be ashamed of himself.

ROSENTHAL: Couldn't you say that people who give large amounts of money to these causes ought to be ashamed of themselves?

McCAFFREY: Yeah, I just said it. Good for you.

ROSENTHAL: All right, and I'll use that. I think the problem is, I live in the city, and these guys, like the pornographers and whoever, get respect, are allowed to do what they want with their money, a lot of it tax-free, and at the same time the respectability is not demeaned.

McCAFFREY: Yeah, I agree. I absolutely agree.

ROSENTHAL: I really have this deep-bone feeling that if somebody like the President or you or somebody said that people like Soros should be ashamed of themselves -- I'm not going to put his name in because you didn't say -- but people who give large amounts of money ought to be ashamed of themselves --

McCAFFREY: Yeah, I think that, yeah.

ROSENTHAL: I think it would have -- I really believe that it would have an effect as much as any ad or anything, or more, a thousand times more.
McCAFFREY: Yeah, I agree.

Copyright © 2000 Harper's Magazine Foundation


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