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Pot-Shots in the War on Drugs

By Yen-dong Ho

EVEN as some American troops await conflict in Saudi Arabia, others are participating in a less noticed and less hyped military invasion--right here in the old U.S. of A.

In the past few months, the Bush administration has sent members of the National Guard and Army soldiers on raids to search and capture marijuana plots on federal lands. Camouflaged and armed, arriving in helicopters reportedly used in the invasion of Panama, these troops have aroused the ire of surrounding communities. And justifiably so. The action threatens the civil rights of American citizens, both now and in the future.

The raids are an anomaly in recent U.S. history. Rarely are American armed forces used against its own citizens. This strategy begs us to ask whether some other less excessive method could be used to combat the domestic drug industry--and makes us question why the President hasn't sought such a plan.

IN THE most publicized mission, code-named Operation Green Sweep, 200 soldiers spread into Bureau of Land Management federal conservation land in northern California, seizing around 1000 marijuana plants in 10 days of raids.

Although their goals may have been admirable, the means used certainly were not.

Neighboring residents were indignant. They alleged that the troops trespassed onto private lands, held citizens at gunpoint without explanation and damaged private property.

Low-flying helicopters, secret movement of armed soldiers, raids and general surveillance... who could blame them if they mistook this attempt at law enforcement as a military coup? Or if they thought they were in some foreign land (such as Colombia) where civilian forces were no longer sufficient to handle domestic narcotic troubles.

This is not to say drugs are not a major problem here as well. Among the largest cash crops in California, marijuana garners its own circles of underworld figures and exploiters.

Yet we must ask ourselves if the army is the most appropriate and most efficient agency to handle this affair.

PRACTICALLY speaking, any advantages of military involvement are probably outweighed by the decreased public support. Indeed, while many surrounding residents of strike sites may agree with the goals of the action, many cannot help but feel outraged by blatant intrusions on their lives.

When your backyard becomes a war zone, you might grow angry, throw tantrums or call your Congressperson. Or you might even, like the Drug Policy Foundation and the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project, file multi-million dollar lawsuits against William Bennett and his czarist policies. Whatever the gains of troop employment (insignificant by many accounts), the government cannot afford to create this unnecessary hostility towards its assault on drugs.

But above and beyond these practical considerations lies the threat of government abuse of power. Even if we consider the Green Sweep incident an aberration, even if we ignore the rising clamor from targeted zones in other states such as Oregon, Missouri and Kentucky, we can hardly discount the potential for civil liberties violations.

Although supposedly limited to federal lands, spill-over into private property seems, from all evidence, unavoidable. We can expect little else if our "war on drugs" escalates into a literal war, for few wars know boundaries and fewer still spare the civilians caught between enemy fire.

This new drug enforcement policy won't turn the United States into a police state overnight. But every little extension of the military sphere must be taken with extreme caution. We must ask ourselves whether the advantages of military action justify the undermining of civil authority in a given problem area.

In this case, I hardly think it's time to send in the marines.

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