Hillary's Uninspiring Drug Reform Plan

Election '08

Remember when we elected Bill Clinton to give us health care and got a comprehensive crime bill instead? It looks like Hillary is following in her hubby's footsteps. In an April 11 speech in Philadelphia, Ms. Clinton unveiled her "Solutions For Safe & Secure Communities" plan, which will provide 100,000 new cops and invest $1 billion in federal monies for local law enforcement or prevention programs.

By many accounts a brilliant legal scholar, Hillary's solutions to the drug problem are surprisingly stale. A new Drug Market Elimination Grant will aim at closing overt drug markets and lowering homicide rates and she will "make sure that federal government law enforcement -- including the FBI -- has the resources it needs to serve as an effective partner with states and local communities, including developing and sharing intelligence on drug trafficking and gangs that operate across state and national borders." Like that's worked so well in the past.

Hillary would also reverse the funding cuts to the Byrne Justice Assistant Grant program, federal monies that fund drug task forces throughout the country. A major motion picture with Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton to be released this year will dramatize one of those task forces in Tulia, Texas, where in 1999, a drug sting operation resulted in the arrest of 46 people, 40 of whom were black. After such abuses were nationally reported, taxpayer groups successfully urged the Bush administration to zero out the grants. However, Democrats put back the pork for their districts and this year, even more monies are sought, to the tune of $906 million. The Senate, lead by the usually liberal Russ Feingold, has already passed the measure and the House will vote on it soon.

Bill Piper, Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Foundation, which has been advocating for reform of Byrne grants for four years, points out that what is seen as free money for states actually costs local jurisdictions, since bulking up law enforcement means more drug-related incarcerations for which locals must pay. Also, since task forces are funded by federal grants or asset forfeiture instead of local budgets, they aren't always responsive to local mores and policies, Piper says, making for a "rogue cop" environment. "A lot of Democrats are disturbed by the fact that 1 in 100 Americans are behind bars, but then they turn around and vote for programs like the Byrne grants," Piper lamented. He did point out that the money can legally be funneled into treatment programs instead, and that DPA itself got a $500,000 grant for youth methamphetamine prevention in New Mexico.

Hillary would also beef-up drug courts and home monitoring programs for drug offenders, as well as requiring a 40-hour work week for prisoners. "Prison work programs should be designed to avoid any adverse impact on the labor market," she writes without detailing how she will pull that one off.

To her credit, Hillary would eliminate the mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine and eliminating the disparity between crack and powder cocaine. This hard-fought reform won at the US Sentencing Commission after a decade of work by human rights advocates, has been attacked by the Bush Administration's attorney general Michael Mukasey. Clinton would also "Take on the Continuing Menace of Meth" by working with foreign governments to police trade and smuggling in meth precursors. This, if effective, would reverse the damage done by the Reagan administration, which sided with the pharmaceutical industry against regulation of ephedrine, meth's main ingredient.

Another good idea is Hillary's plan to "Go After Corporate Criminals With the Same Force as Individual Criminals." She would direct the new Attorney General to conduct a 90-day review of all Deferred Prosecution Agreements and report to her on how to strengthen prosecution efforts against corporate wrongdoers. But when it comes to prescription drug companies, who are among her major campaign contributors, Hillary would merely "enlist the private sector to crack down on online prescription drug sales to kids." She will "ask credit card companies to prohibit -- and police -- the use of their services for illegal drug sales to minors. And she will call on search engines that profit from ads for these illegal drugs to provide warnings about the dangers and the illegality of purchasing these drugs. At the same time, she will strengthen penalties against fly-by-night online pharmacies that prey on children." Since prescription drug abuse is the fastest rising sector among teenagers, these pronouncements are rather lame.

Last week, Hillary told Oregon's Willamette Week, "I don't think it's a good use of federal law-enforcement resources to be going after people who are supplying marijuana for medicinal purposes." She stopped short of her earlier pledge to end US Drug Enforcement Administration raids of medical marijuana establishments in states where it is legal, but said this would not be a high priority in her administration. So we might see a slight softening on some levels in America's longest war, the 100-year drug war, but overall we will still see more money spent on failed policies if Hillary moves back to the White House in 2009.

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