War on Drugs has unlikely foe

December 15, 2007

Brent Hopkins, Los Angeles Daily News

As a friend of presidents and hobnobber with governors, David Fleming makes an unlikely insurgent against the War on Drugs.

He's been dubbed by a local business weekly as "The Valley's Most Powerful Person," chairs the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and doles out dollars to charity by the millions.

He works for one of the world's largest law firms. He can preach for hours about business tax, government reform and transportation.

With his immaculate white shirts, slicked-back hair and easy familiarity with powerful people, Fleming embodies The Man.

"I smoked marijuana once, 25 years ago," he said. "I got high for three hours and decided: `Yecch. This is not for me."'

Although it was not for him, he doesn't begrudge those who opt for comfort with a bong or a needle. The Man, a registered Republican and consummate insider, thinks the drug war is "stupid."

And he's putting his money - and his reputation - on the line to try to win more recruits to his cause.

Fleming and his wife, Jean, put thousands of dollars of their considerable personal fortune into producing "Smoke Screen," a 90-minute docudrama promoting the medical marijuana movement.

They've previewed it for local politicians and powerbrokers and are looking for film festivals.

Jean Fleming co-wrote the script and produced the film. David Fleming narrates it. After years of research, he effortlessly tosses off statistics used in the film in his deep, even voice.

"The War on Drugs has cost the American taxpayer $1 trillion since 1972," he said. "We're paying $69 billion a year to make a health problem into a criminal one."

That's the libertarian side of him talking - he's also a board member of the Reason Foundation. But while Fleming can go on at length about drug stats from a policy standpoint, he's also got a personal stake.

His wife, a former Miss Illinois turned actress, suffers debilitating pain from post-polio syndrome. Several months ago, she obtained a prescription for medical marijuana. At night, she takes a few drops of liquid THC or snacks on a pot brownie to ease the pain.

"Here's Jeannie, well-to-do and a pillar of society, using marijuana," Fleming said.

"And I could be thrown in prison by Bush," she interjected.

That's Bush as in President George W. - the one who named her husband as a trustee for the James Madison Foundation, a group of politicians, jurists and two private citizens that hands out scholarships for teachers. Fleming has a photo of him and the president in his office.

The couple have an unusual marriage. He hangs with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. She wears a Barack Obama T-shirt. The two disagree on many political issues, but they vehemently agree about the need for drug-policy reform.

"Look, I'm an old lady, so I can say what I want to," she said. "In the '60s, I used to go to parties where cocaine was passed around and snorted. Nothing ever went up my nose, but I smoked marijuana."

At the same time, Fleming was practicing law and building his life in the establishment. When Nixon made the drug war a priority in 1972, Fleming didn't give it a second thought.

"I just went along with it: Sure, drugs are bad," he said. "The government says so. I'll agree with that."

Back then, Fleming says, 1.3 percent of the population was addicted to drugs, which sounded alarming. He looked into it some more and found that in 1915, 1.3 percent of the population was also addicted. In 2007, he says 1.3 percent is still hooked.

"This War on Drugs is a disaster, and it has been for years," he said. "It's financed gangs for years. If a thinking person washes their mind of all the things they've been brainwashed with, they'd have to come to the same conclusion."

But that's a conclusion that neither Fleming would have reached on his or her own. It took a personal tragedy for each to get their minds to change.

For Jean Fleming, it came in the late 1980s, long after she'd given up recreational smoking and settled into writing screenplays.

"My son got in trouble with drugs again," she said. "I got very upset and couldn't function very well - as families do when someone who wouldn't hurt a fly gets thrown in prison."

Her son got busted with coke in a duffle bag in New Zealand. He got some prison time and then somehow managed to escape, only to get busted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and extradited back to New Zealand.

A decade later, David Fleming saw tragedy of his own, when he lost a son to a cocaine overdose.

"It turned out to be pure, and he didn't know it," he said. "That's what happens with illegal drugs. If they were regulated and controlled, that wouldn't be an issue. By doing what we've done, we've turned the whole drug business over to the bad guys."

He began reading up on the subject and arrived at his present position: The government should not only legalize drugs, it should license and sell them. The tax money generated from sales could then fund medical and educational initiatives to help people kick unwanted addictions.

As he refined his point of view, Jean Fleming decided to write a movie and her husband put his money to work. She met up with Todd Nelson, an actor she'd met in a vacuum-repair shop, and the two wrote "Smoke Screen" together.

As firmly rooted in the establishment as the Flemings seem, Nelson is their polar opposite. He wears a crystal necklace and his hair long.

"I've always had an interest in legalizing drugs because I've had friends who've been arrested," Nelson said. "At the time we started writing, I didn't even smoke marijuana, but I thought it was unfair for me to advocate something I hadn't experienced. So I sacrificed myself."

That drew a chuckle from David Fleming, who does not get high, smoke cigarettes or drink anything harder than club soda, but Nelson continued.

"Changing the drug laws would be the single best thing we could do for society," he said.

Not so, Los Angeles police Deputy Chief Michel Moore said. While he noted state law allows for medical marijuana use - and that federal law does not - Moore disagreed that giving people access to whatever drugs they want would be such a panacea.

"Legalization of drugs would bring higher property crime rates and more people using drugs because the social stigma would be removed," Moore said. "The consequences of that use can lead to them losing their jobs, losing their families and resorting to more crime."

Councilman Dennis Zine, a retired police officer who still serves as an LAPD reserve, agreed that legalizing harder drugs would be a problem. But he's OK with medical marijuana - and believes more people will come around as a result of Fleming's advocacy.

"He's at Latham and Watkins, he's a Fernando Award winner, one of the buildings at Valley Presbyterian Hospital is named for them," Zine said. "They're honorable people in this community. There are lots of people like them who are in the shadows - and I respect their desire for privacy - but the Flemings have actually stepped forward."

Drug reform is nothing new, nor is the medical marijuana movement. But the chorus normally comes from college campuses and guys sporting Grateful Dead T-shirts, not directors of the Los Angeles Police Foundation and former fire commissioners.

"He didn't come to this position because he's got hippie roots or he'd like to do some cocaine and not have anybody bother him," said Adrian Moore, vice president of the Reason Foundation. "But certain things get him really worked up - transportation, the budget, things like that.

"And one of the things he sees as really screwed up is the War on Drugs."

Maybe the movie will get people to change their minds, Fleming said. He doesn't care if it makes any money, just that the politicians whose home numbers he keeps in his Rolodex will be willing to take up the issue.

If necessary, he'll distribute it on the Internet, trading revenue for the educational benefit.

"It's taken a long time, and we've still got a big hill to climb," he said. "People have been literally brainwashed for years about this. But they're starting to open their eyes."



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