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Reagan's Drug War Legacy

Some of the most prohibitive drug control laws ever were passed on Reagan's watch -- and Just Say No wasn't the half of it.
 
 
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As Reagan's deification by the media and the right reaches epic proportions, three of his less-than-endearing legacies deserve to be highlighted:

  • Mandatory minimum drug sentences in 1986. This was the first time Congress passed mandatory minimum sentences since the Boggs Act in 1951.
  • Federal sentencing guidelines: Under this new method of sentencing, which went into effect in 1987, prison time is determined mostly by the weight of the drugs involved in the offense. Parole was abolished and prisoners must serve 85 percent of their sentence. Except in rare situations, judges can no longer factor in the character of the defendant, the effect of incarceration on his or her dependents, and in large part, the nature and circumstances of the crime. The only way to receive a more lenient sentence is to act as an informant against others and hope that the prosecutor is willing to deal. The guidelines in effect stripped Article III of their sentencing discretion and turned it over to prosecutors.
  • The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988: This law established a federal death penalty for "drug kingpins." President Reagan called it a new sword and shield in the escalating battle against drugs, and signed the bill in his wife's honor:

Nancy, for your tireless efforts on behalf of all of us, and the love you've shown the children in your Just Say No program, I thank you and personally dedicate this bill to you. And with great pleasure, I will now sign the Anti-Drug...

Did the law nab Pablo Escobar? No. The law's first conquest was David Ronald Chandler, known as "Ronnie." Ronnie grew marijuana in a small town in rural, northeast Alabama. About 300 pounds a year. Ronnie was sentenced to death for supposedly hiring someone to kill his brother-in-law. The witness against him later recanted. Clinton commuted Chandler's death sentence to life.

While we agree Nancy Reagan is to be lauded for her caretaking of her husband the past ten years, we must also point out that she is responsible for the "Just Say No" campaign against drugs, which ultimately deteriorated into a punchline. Remember this famous Nancy quote?

Not long ago in Oakland, Calif., I was asked by a group of children what to do if they were offered drugs. And I answered, 'Just Say No.' Soon after that those children in Oakland formed a Just Say No Club and now there are over 10,000 such clubs all over the country.

As a result of these flawed drug policies initiated by then President Reagan, (and continued by Bush I, Clinton and Bush II) the number of those imprisoned in America has quadrupled to over 2 million. These are legacies that groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums are still fighting today. Even George Shultz, Ronald Reagan's former secretary of state, acknowledged in 2001 that the War on Drugs is a flop.

In Smoke and Mirrors, Dan Baum, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, provides a detailed account of the politics surrounding Reagan's war on drugs.

Conservative parents' groups opposed to marijuana had helped to ignite the Reagan Revolution. Marijuana symbolized the weakness and permissiveness of a liberal society; it was held responsible for the slovenly appearance of teenagers and their lack of motivation. Carlton Turner, Reagan's first drug czar, believed that marijuana use was inextricably linked to "the present young-adult generation's involvement in anti-military, anti-nuclear power, anti-big business, anti-authority demonstrations." A public-health approach to drug control was replaced by an emphasis on law enforcement. Drug abuse was no longer considered a form of illness; all drug use was deemed immoral, and punishing drug offenders was thought to be more important than getting them off drugs. The drug war soon became a bipartisan effort, supported by liberals and conservatives alike. Nothing was to be gained politically by defending drug abusers from excessive punishment.

Drug-control legislation was proposed, almost like clockwork, during every congressional-election year in the 1980s. Election years have continued to inspire bold new drug-control schemes. On September 25 of last year Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich introduced legislation demanding either a life sentence or the death penalty for anyone caught bringing more than two ounces of marijuana into the United States. Gingrich's bill attracted twenty-six co-sponsors, though it failed to reach the House floor. A few months earlier Senator Phil Gramm had proposed denying federal welfare benefits, including food stamps, to anyone convicted of a drug crime, even a misdemeanor. Gramm's proposal was endorsed by a wide variety of senators-including liberals such as Barbara Boxer, Tom Harkin, Patrick Leahy, and Paul Wellstone. A revised version of the amendment, limiting the punishment to people convicted of a drug felony, was incorporated into the welfare bill signed by President Clinton during the presidential campaign. Possessing a few ounces of marijuana is a felony in most states, as is growing a single marijuana plant. As a result, Americans convicted of a marijuana felony, even if they are disabled, may no longer receive federal welfare or food stamps. Convicted murderers, rapists, and child molesters, however, will continue to receive these benefits.

Reagan also left his mark on the Supreme Court. He nominated conservative Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor to sit on the Court and appointed William Rehnquist as Chief Justice. The Supreme Court has upheld these draconian laws and sentencing guidelines, as well as the 1984 Federal Bail Reform Act, which allows prosecutors to request that drug defendants facing a possible sentence of ten years or more be held without bond until trial.

Jeralyn Merritt is the creator of TalkLeft: the politics of crime .