James McDonough is fuming. McDonough, Florida's first drug czar, is sitting on a makeshift dais in a ballroom of the Orlando Renaissance Hotel March 14 as part of a three-member panel convened for a town-hall meeting on substance-abuse policy. The panel was put together by groups for and against relaxing drug laws. McDonough, though, is clearly tired of answering questions from the former.
"I do enjoy the occasional joint or so," says Brian Cregger, a University of Central Florida staff engineer and former vice president of UCF's NORML chapter. "There are good people out there who [smoke pot]."
To which McDonough gives his standard reply: "Marijuana is a gateway drug. The more you liberalize drug laws, the more grief you will buy."
The next questioner accuses McDonough of massaging pot-use statistics to make his policies look successful. You can almost see the steam coming from his ears. "No kidding. [Marijuana use] is down. The science is absolute. It's a bad drug."
Then McDonough abruptly announces that he has to leave, but agrees to one more question so as not to appear to be ducking out. Up rolls a woman in a wheelchair who says she has Lou Gehrig's Disease. Marijuana, she says, has kept her alive for seven years. "Who are the politicians to tell me I can't live?"
McDonough avers, saying pot isn't medicine, and that the therapeutic effects of THC need more study.
When the moderator invites all three panelists -- McDonough, California Superior Court Judge James Grey and Orange County homeland security director Jerry Demings -- to make closing statements, McDonough declines. Then he bolts.
In itself, the gathering wasn't particularly enlightening; those familiar with the drug-war debate would recognize the predictable rhetoric from all sides. But it was an interesting look into the personality of the man leading Florida's war on drugs. In this forum, McDonough was vulnerable. Grey, a decriminalization advocate planning a run for president on the Libertarian ticket, was a far superior debater. And the 40-person crowd was decidedly unfriendly, so McDonough was a long way from the comforting embrace of Gov. Jeb Bush and the GOP-controlled Legislature. He was out of his element, and he didn't like it.
McDonough, now in his fourth year as director of the Florida Office of Drug Control, is a textbook hard-liner. He pooh-poohs anything that undermines his hard-and-fast doctrine of purging drugs from society. Decriminalization, needle exchanges, medical marijuana (which he once called a "stalking horse for the legalization of drugs"), all are pathways to societal destruction. He's alarmed at marijuana's growing acceptability -- a recent poll from Time Magazine indicated that 80 percent of Americans think medical marijuana is OK; and 72 percent say minor pot possession should mean fines, not jail.
"As Florida is concerned, my state can and will do much to overcome the bad experience it has suffered in recent years from illegal drugs," he told a congressional subcommittee in 1999. "It does not intend to meet the challenge by making drugs legal."
The November elections held vindication. As McDonough happily noted in an op-ed to the Washington Times, Nevada voters rejected an amendment to legalize small amounts of pot. Ohio voters rejected a "right to drug treatment" amendment; Arizona voters turned back a medical-marijuana initiative; and South Dakota voters rejected hemp legalization.
"The net result was a broad-based rejection of the drug normalization campaign begun in the mid-1990s," he opined.
He also finds encouragement in statistics showing a decline in Florida's drug use. In 2000, McDonough and Bush crafted a five-year plan to reduce substance abuse -- from 8 percent of the population in 2000 to 4 percent by 2005. The current number is 5.5 percent. Taken on the whole, those numbers indicate Florida's drug use is on the decline.
Also, the 2002 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey showed that among teens illicit drug use was dropping across the board, though 12 percent and 31 percent of students still report using pot and alcohol, respectively, in the last 30 days.
"That [downward] trend has to do with people becoming aware of the criminalization of their behavior and not reporting it," says Jodi James, head of the Florida Cannabis Action Network. The substance-abuse survey relies on students' admissions for its results. "I don't think people tell [McDonough] the truth."
McDonough became a drug warrior in 1996 when he was named Director of Strategy for the national Office of Drug Control Policy. Before that, he boasted a long and storied career in the U.S. Army, serving in Africa and the Balkans. He made waves in 1998, writing a scathing op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal that called for President Bill Clinton's impeachment.
A year later, he took the job as drug czar, a position created by Gov. Jeb Bush, who campaigned on anti-drug and tough-on-crime promises. McDonough's budget is about $500 million, $310 million of which comes from the state and the rest coming from federal grants. He's in charge of trying to minimize both the supply (through interdiction) and demand (via prevention) of drugs. When Jeb's brother became president in 2001, McDonough was on the list to become the nation's drug czar.
McDonough made his mark by torpedoing a Florida medical-marijuana initiative. He traveled across the state lobbying elected officials and other high-profile politicos to oppose the measure. The proposal never reached the ballot.
Two years later, a "right to treatment" measure -- which decriminalizes possession of small amounts of narcotics for those who agree to treatment -- survived McDonough's initial attempt to run it out of town, but eventually fell victim to the Florida Supreme Court, which declined to rule on language issues until just six months before election day, 2002. There was no time to mount a campaign, so backers of the issue bailed and pledged to raise it again in 2004.
In 2000, McDonough was caught red-handed exaggerating data related to "designer drug" deaths. Though his report listed 254 casualties, they included a 4-year-old Orlando boy who died after a hospital gave him ketamine (which is listed as a "designer drug"), a 58-year-old St. Petersburg resident who died after heart surgery, and so on.
But his biggest misstep came in 1999, when he advocated using the fungus fusarium oxysporum to eliminate Florida's marijuana crop. Even the state's Department of Environmental Protection protested, since toxins derived from it can be deadly to both humans and animals. It could also mutate and kill agricultural crops. Amid widespread protest, the plan died.
For legalization advocates, those types of things weren't entirely unexpected.
"Initially, when [Bush] appointed a military strategist as head of drug policy in Florida, we were pretty disgusted," Jodi James says. "But because of [open-government laws], we've been able to take a look at his strategy and help protect people. [The office has] given us a target."
It's also opened up a line of communication between activists and the governor. They're now invited to forums and the state's annual drug-control summit -- which at least gets their voices heard, even if later ignored. McDonough's willingness to trade barbs with legalization advocates lends credence to a gathering that would otherwise be inconsequential.
"He doesn't feel threatened by us," James says. Friday's forum, she notes, was co-sponsored by Common Sense for Drug Policy, Florida Foundation for Social Justice and Orange County Drug-Free Communities. And it taught her something about his character.
"Director McDonough is far more compassionate to people than I am," she continues. McDonough's heart may be in the right place, but James thinks he's fighting the wrong battle. He blames the drugs for violence and crime, not irresponsible users or drug-war policies.
"My strategy toward director McDonough is going to change. He blames the drugs; he doesn't blame the user, he doesn't blame the policies. We need to show director McDonough that it is not the drug that's the problem."