July 16, 2001

On becoming a war victim

Author: JT Smith

- By Richard Stallman-

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," because 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
although 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 United States 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 U.S. 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 U.S.
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 policemen hunting for drugs.
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
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 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 forfeiture, see
http://www.aclu.org/issues/drugpolicy/CivilAssetForfeiture.html
. If
you want to help get the war off drugs, see
www.mpp.org.

Editor's note: This essay reflects Richard Stallman's personal views
and not those of the Free Software Foundation.

Copyright 2001 Richard Stallman
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted
in any medium provided the copyright notice and this notice are
preserved.

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