Memo to the Next President, Re: The Drug War


Dear Mr. President-Soon-To-Be:

A week and a half after the election, I don't know who you are. At least I don't know for sure. But there is something I do know about you. Not to a judicial certainty, perhaps, depending on whom you turn out to be. But I'm pretty sure that most reasonable people would agree with me.

I know you've used illegal drugs.

You've either admitted it, or you've refused to deny it, having been willing to admit to other similar things. Indeed, you might never openly admit it, or admit to how often it actually happened. But I know it's true; and let's face it, I know that you know that I know it's true. Even if you won't say so out loud.

You've talked about "youthful irresponsibility" and growing up and overcoming the mistakes of your past. You've pleaded privacy. You've declared that your behavior of a quarter century or more ago has no relevance to your suitability for the office of President of the United States today.

And you have a valid point. It would be unfortunate, perhaps disastrous, were every past user of any illegal drug to be disqualified from positions of responsibility. I'm willing to grant you the privacy argument, and I'm more than willing to forgive you for "youthful indiscretions." Certainly, the public at large has the right to make such determinations too. You have ample subsequent history, in public office or private life, on which to judge your suitability for the nation's highest office. Based on that history, I decided not to vote for you. But that's only one individual's personal choice.

There's one sticking point, though, that I can't quite get past. It's your drug policies. Under your tenure as Texas Governor or federal Vice President, incarcerations have nearly doubled. You've presided over, sometimes encouraged, mandatory minimum sentences, sending countless nonviolent offenders to prison for much, sometimes most or all of their lives. None of them had the social, medical or legal resources that enabled you to be certain you would never suffer serious consequences for your actions.

You've gone so far as to incarcerate medical marijuana patients, or to allow them to be incarcerated under your authority. And you seem to support stripping students convicted of drug offenses of the educational financial aid that you would never have needed, but which they do.

So I agree that your "youthful indiscretions" aren't all that important. But whether your policies toward today's youth reflect a similar tolerance, or at least forgiveness, for their indiscretions, is very important, and has defining implications for your leadership and character.

Two million Americans languish behind bars, nearly half a million of for nonviolent drug offenses. Yet you ran an entire campaign without discussing this issue more than minimally. I think I know why. But I hope you don't think you'll be able to get away with that for four more years, let alone eight. Because you should know that you won't.

David Borden is the executive director of the Drug Reform Coordination Network. He can be reached at

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