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On Becoming a War Victim

-- Richard Stallman

(First published on Newsforge)

While traveling from South Africa to Sweden in June, I became a victim of the War on Drugs.

It happened at Frankfurt airport, just after I disembarked from the flight from Johannesburg. When I reached the gate itself, a man was standing there with a dog. Just after I passed him, two other people flashed badges at me, and told me they were customs agents. I could not read the badges without my glasses, but I took their word for it. They told me to step aside, show them my passport, and answer their questions.

They asked where I had come from. "Johannesburg--but you know that already," I replied. "You know where this flight came from." Then they asked to see my ticket. The ticket itself had been collected, so I handed them my boarding pass stub and said, "This is what is left of it." They seemed to find that hard to accept. So I showed them the ticket for the next flight, the one from Frankfurt to Stockholm. That had the side effect of showing them that I had another flight in 40 minutes, which may have been some help.

At this point I asked them, "What's going on? Why are you questioning me here?" They tried to evade the issue: "We're customs agents; asking these questions is our job." I pushed the point: "I travel most of the time, as you see", since they were leafing through my passport, "and I have been through this airport many times before. This is not normal. This is not where people go through customs. What is the meaning of this?"

They said that the dog had told them I was carrying "drugs."

At this point they searched my computer bag, asking some silly questions about things such as papers about my computer, which were evidently not drugs. Then they searched my food bag, rather casually since it held many mood-altering substances (tea and chocolate) to which they paid no attention.

They didn't bother with my backpack, which was foolish, because it was full of drugs--ibuprofin, acetaminophen, oxymetazoline, and more. Perhaps the dog told them enough was enough. They asked if I had checked baggage, and I said yes, a large suitcase. But they let me go without arranging to check it. Little did they know that I was transporting pseudephedrine, mefloquine and levaquin there.

I was a victim of the War on Drugs that day, but I was not hurt very badly: I lost only five minutes of my time. Others have it much worse. I encounter this problem rarely because I am a caucasian from a rich country. (Once in a while my long hair counts against me.) If you have the wrong skin color, or ethnic background, or national origin, you're likely to be harassed frequently, and may be detained for hours. But what about evidence? Probable cause? For the drug warriors, a word from a dog is enough. I may be lucky this happened in Frankfurt, because in the US the police could have seized all the money I had with me on mere suspicion--for instance, if a dog said it smelled of cocaine (which nearly all US paper money does). This procedure is called "civil forfeiture": instead of accusing you of a crime, they accuse your cash instead. (If this sounds ridiculous, don't blame me, it's what the US government says.) They do it this way because your cash doesn't have the constitutional rights that a person has. The War on Drugs has effectively negated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

But it gets worse than that: the War on Drugs can ruin your life. A minister in New York City died from a heart attack when the police burst into his apartment by mistake. Of course, that sort of thing is rare. A larger number of innocent people are shot by drugs-mad policemen. But the usual way this war ruins innocent people's lives is when they are falsely convicted of trafficking. This is not unusual, because everyone accused is offered the chance to reduce his sentence by inculpating someone else. (The inquisitors in Europe, hunting witches, used the same approach.) To comply is wrong, but not everyone can face extra years in prison for the sake of his conscience. And if the accused runs short of real accomplices to denounce, he can always denounce someone innocent. Maybe you.

And this is not even to mention the trouble that the War on Drugs causes for people who use drugs. Illegal drugs differ as much as alcohol and caffeine; some are safe enough when used responsibly. Sometimes more than merely safe: marijuana can be the best treatment for the pain of cancer or AIDS. But even if the drug itself is safe, using it puts you in danger--from the police.

Some illegal drugs are dangerous, but it's easy to protect yourself from them: just say no. But you can't "just say no" to the War on Drugs. When a war is on drugs, it forgets who the enemy is, and starts attacking everyone.

The War on Drugs needs to get off drugs, and come to its senses. It is up to us to help.

In the past few years, several states have passed laws to permit medical use of marijuana. Massachusetts is now considering a bill to eliminate criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. These efforts are just a beginning, but they need your support. For more information about civil foreiture, see If you want to help get the war off drugs, see the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project.

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