All Commentary
Thursday, June 1, 2000

The War Against Drug-Speech

Washington Hopes to Muzzle a Public Critical of the Failing War on Drugs

The “thought police” are back, and with a vengeance. Pending congressional legislation casts politicians and law enforcement as modern-day book burners. Legislators have their pick of three separate bills that would impose a ten-year felony sentence on anyone who communicates, by any means, “information pertaining to the . . . manufacture of a controlled substance,” if that information aids in the furtherance of a federal crime.

The most high-profile of these is S. 486, the Anti-Methamphetamine Proliferation Act, which the Senate unanimously approved before its winter recess. It now awaits action by the House, whose members are champing at the bit to rubber-stamp the proposal this spring despite its assault on the First Amendment. “We are hoping to have hearings . . . and pass the bill this year, sooner rather than later,” says Representative Chris Cannon of Utah, who shrugs off its implications for free speech. “We have worked a lot with attorneys at the Department of Justice; we have been pretty thorough there. We don’t even expect a court challenge.”

The amendment’s authors, Senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Orrin Hatch of Utah, argue their proposal is necessary to prohibit “those who embrace the drug counterculture . . . [from] using the Internet to promote, advertise, and sell illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia.” However, some drug-law reformers warn that the legislation’s broad language could apply to virtually any speech deemed contrary to the War on Drugs.

“Given the vague and inclusive interpretation of federal conspiracy laws, almost any information about criminalized drugs and any dissent against existing drug laws could be construed by federal enforcers as furthering drug crimes,” speculates Mark Greer, who runs Drug Sense, the World Wide Web’s largest drug-related news-clipping service. “Any anti-drug war Web site [could] be shut down directly or indirectly because Internet service providers, fearing prosecution, would refuse to host such sites.”

Web sites, magazines, and books containing information on procuring medical cannabis, sterilizing needles, identifying wild psychedelic mushrooms, vaporizing marijuana, and a host of other drug-related activities would be censored under the Feinstein-Hatch legislation, and their publishers would be subject to prosecution. Even communicating information pertaining to the personal cultivation of medical marijuana in states where it is now legal to do so (Alaska, California, Maine, Oregon, and Washington) could become punishable by a ten-year prison term. In addition, third parties such as journalists and newspapers that link or refer to drug-related Internet sites could also face felony prosecution and jail time. To demonstrate this point, a recent editorial in the Boston Phoenix newspaper included links to a trio of Web sites containing information on the preparation of illicit substances. “Warning,” the editors wrote, “the editorial you are about to read would be illegal if Senators Feinstein and Hatch had their way.”

“This bill is the single most un-American thing I have ever seen,” says Mike Hoy, president of the publishing house Loompanics Unlimited, which stocks several drug-related titles such as Opium for the Masses: A Practical Guide to Growing Poppies and Making Opium and Gourmet Cannabis Cookery. “If it passes, we would probably pull all of our drug books, since I am unwilling to spend several hundred thousand dollars that I don’t have to prove that my ‘intent’ satisfies Big Brother.”

Just what kind of material indicates intent to further drug crimes is also a concern for Richard Cowan, publisher of, which posts drug-related newspaper articles and press releases. “The intent will inevitably be determined by context,” a judgment that will likely be left up to the Drug Enforcement Administration, he suggests.

Proving Intent

Marv Johnson of the American Civil Liberties Union believes that prosecutors would only be able to prove intent if they could show that a publisher knew beforehand its literature would serve to further a criminal act. He admits, however, that the legal parameters surrounding this issue are not yet well defined.

“Ultimately, this law will be selectively enforced,” assumes Dana Larsen, editor of the Vancouver-based magazine Cannabis Culture. “The Web is too large [to thoroughly censor].” Nevertheless, the feds could use the law to target high-profile dissenters in the War on Drugs and strike fear into the hearts of anyone else contemplating the dissemination of non-approved drug-speech.

Similar censorship laws exist in other nations. Canada’s parliament banned all literature pertaining to illicit drug use in 1988, making the importation and sale of such materials punishable by up to six months in jail and a $100,000 fine. (An Ontario provincial court eventually struck down this ban in 1995, and now the law is rarely enforced.) Larsen reports that a handful of pro-marijuana authors and publishers have been fined and jailed in England and France. An Argentine judge is demanding that the United States extradite former High Times Magazine editor Peter Gorman for allegedly advocating the use of marijuana via the Internet. Promoting criminal activity in itself is a crime in Argentina, and Gorman could receive a prison sentence if extradited and found guilty. Could similar situations here be far off?

Saul Rubin, author of Offbeat Marijuana, says the bill would “chill any legitimate exchange of information about [illicit drugs], be it on a Web site, in a book, a magazine, or even a conversation. The Feinstein-Hatch bill would [even] make writing and publishing [my] book a crime.”

That is likely the true agenda of lawmakers backing S. 486 and its companion bills. By suppressing information that contradicts the drug war agenda, Congress is hoping to extinguish the already one-sided drug policy debate and muzzle a public that is growing increasingly intolerant of Washington’s failing social policies.