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When DEA agents do drugs

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This weekend I traveled to Washington D.C. for CPAC, the annual conference held by the American Conservative Union and billed as the nation’s largest yearly gathering of conservatives. I was there to work a booth for an independent film and to see some of the conference’s speakers, but as it turned out, some of my other experiences in Washington were just as enlightening as my time at the conference, including my run-in with the DEA.

On the last day of CPAC, after spending hours on my feet at a booth in the conference’s exhibit hall, I got on the Metro subway and headed for Arlington where I was staying with some friends for the weekend. Instead of going straight home, I made a stop at a bar in Crystal City to unwind and have a quiet moment alone with a drink or two.

“So you just came from CPAC?” The older gentleman next to me with a large glass of beer and a cigarette in his hand gestured toward my bright red CPAC bag, the one you get to hold all those fliers and promotional materials in. We started discussing politics and the Republican Party’s presidential primary and as we talked, the gentleman continued to swill down beer and aggressively chain smoke his way through a pack of cigarettes. He even bought a round of shots for three of us sitting near him at the bar.

That’s about the time that I asked the question you ask everybody when you’re in Washington: “So who do you work for?” In other cities, it’s “So what do you do?” but in Washington, it’s “Who do you work for?” That’s how people identify, define, and categorize themselves and each other there. It’s always a government agency, a lobbyist, a non-profit– something related to the massive political-bureaucratic complex headquartered in the District of Columbia. The man said, “I work for the DEA.” “Ah yes,” I replied,” The Drug Enforcement Administration.” He smiled and answered, “I’m glad you said ‘administration.’ People always say ‘agency.'”

For literally years now, I’ve been writing here at the Independent Voter Network to cover news, current events, and public policy. One of my major areas of focus has been drug policy and the unintended consequences of drug prohibition, so you can only imagine that my interest was piqued when I discovered I’d been drinking and talking with a DEA employee. I pressed him for details and from what I could gather, he directs operations to interdict the flow of illegal drugs over the borders. He’s part of an organization that exists to restrict the recreational use of drugs and to punish people who have anything to do with the drugs under its purview– and he was sitting next to me happily enjoying two drugs of his own: alcohol and nicotine.

The irony hit me so hard that I had to stifle a big laugh. This man’s work is predicated on the idea that drugs like marijuana are so dangerous that people cannot be trusted to use them responsibly and safely. They have to be prohibited by law and any dissidents jailed and imprisoned for violating the rules. Yet here he was safely and peacefully imbibing alcohol and sucking the nicotine-infused smoke from cigarette after glowing cigarette into his lungs, an act that is strongly linked to lung cancer while smoking marijuana joints might not be. If a man like this, who probably considers himself very successful, a man who works hard at his job in a federal agency and pays his own way through life, can responsibly use two mind-altering substances to unwind at the end of a hard week, why does he think other productive, peaceful Americans are incapable of doing the same with a different drug?

Isn’t it just a little hypocritical to work for an organization called the Drug Enforcement Administration while clearly addicted to one drug, and recreationally imbibing another? If all of the arguments for marijuana prohibition are sound, then shouldn’t we also ban this DEA employee’s drugs of choice? Aren’t they also bad for your health, addictive, and responsible for thousands of deaths? My experience over the weekend helped crystallize the image of inconsistency surrounding federal drug policy. Washington is a city where hundreds of lawmakers vote to ban certain drugs and hundreds more bureaucrats work to enforce that ban– then they all leave work for the day and some unwind by legally and publicly enjoying a cold alcoholic beverage and a pack of nicotine cigarettes. Does that make any sense at all?


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