Bush Ignores the Anti-Drug War Tide

Just when the drug war had started swinging into reform mode, the most conservative administration in years stepped into the White House. Will George W. Bush ignore the mainstream backlash against the drug war?
There have been many ironic moments during the now thirty-years-long, $300 billion war on drugs.

There was the time when Elvis, strung out on all manner of narcotics, presented himself to President Nixon as drug-busting king and was credentialed a Special Assistant in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs hours before he overdosed and died.

There was the downfall of Carter administration drug czar Peter Bourne, who after being caught writing a fraudulent prescription for Quaaludes and accused of snorting cocaine at a marijuana legalizers' party, unintentionally transformed the drug war from a public health campaign to a moral and law enforcement battle.

And there was the realization on the part of the DEA that even after the 1984 bust of Tranquilandia, a Colombian jungle lab that produced $15 billion in cocaine, there was no impact on the availability or purity of cocaine on the American market.

Now yet another moment of blistering irony has come: just when the drug war is swinging into reform mode, when opinion among politicians and the public about the success of imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders and interdicting drug traffic is at an all-time low, the most conservative cabinet in years is settling into the White House.

Realists have long said the drug war is intractable. Americans have a problem. They like experimenting with mind-altering substances. Drugs will never be legalized and therefore a lucrative black market will always thrive. But there are now close to 2 million people in American prisons and 500,000 of them -- a full fourth -- are nonviolent drug offenders. Of that number, 62.7 percent are black, even though five times as many whites use drugs. Meanwhile, the United States spends over $40 billion a year to fight the flow of narcotics, and the only sure beneficiary is the prison industry, which has boomed to keep up with a prison population that has doubled since 1980. In big states like New York and California more money is spent on keeping people locked up than on education or health care.

These are some of the numbers, a few of the damning facts. And more and more Americans are aware of them. On Election Day, voters in California, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Nevada made it clear they believe the war on drugs has created -- in departing drug czar Barry McCaffrey's words -- a veritable "drug gulag." Ballot initiatives challenging law enforcement's blanket treatment of criminals passed by wide margins. Additionally, in Oregon and Utah initiatives to restrict police from keeping seized property of drug offenders -- for years criticized as unconstitutional -- also easily passed. In California, a landmark bill, Proposition 36, will now require that nonviolent offenders be treated instead of jailed, with the result that as many as 37,000 fewer Californians will be incarcerated annually and hundreds of millions of dollars will be saved.

If that were not enough proof of the public's loss of faith in recent drug policy, a 1998 Harvard School of Public Health reports that 78 percent of Americans believe anti-drug efforts have failed, with 58 percent asserting that after five years of increased anti-drug spending the nation's drug problems have not improved.

So it seems we reached a "tipping point" in the war on drugs, to use writer Malcolm Gladwell's phrase for the viral-like passage of an idea into wide acceptance. Indeed, over the past few months condemning drug policy has reached epidemic proportions. Editorialists from the Washington Post, the New York Times and Newsweek have been demanding decreased prison sentences, an end to racist discrepancies between crack and cocaine sentencing and increases in funding for treatment. "Until now," wrote Washington Post columnist Judy Mann, referring to the drug reform movement, "we have had hysteria instead of sensible debate about the way to deal with the wreckage brought on families, society and the Constitution by illegal drugs and the failed war against them."

Such calls for change have also become bipartisan. Public policy organizations as diverse as the libertarian Cato Institute, which developed the idea of privatizing part of Social Security, and the liberal Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, which is leading the effort to refocus federal drug policies on public health and harm reduction, are working together and backing the same drug initiatives that passed on Election Day. Just published by the Cato Institute is "After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century," which includes some of the most damning indictments of the drug war ever written.

What is perhaps most amazing is that drug reform gusto among journalists and policy wonks is not taking place in a political vacuum. Two high-ranking Republican politicians are leading the call. In his recent State of the State address, New York Gov. George Pataki announced he would seek legislation to "dramatically reform" the state's 1970s Rockefeller drug laws, which are some of the toughest in the country. Under them, a person convicted of selling two or more ounces of heroin or possessing four or more ounces of cocaine faces a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 15 years and those convicted of selling a single vial of crack or bag of heroin are sent away for five years or more. Now Pataki is proposing minimum sentences of 8 1/3 years for nonviolent drug offenders and more money for treatment centers.

One-upping New York on the drug reform front is New Mexico, whose governor, Gary Johnson, has been among the most vocal critics of current drug policies. Like Pataki, Johnson has called for reducing mandatory minimum sentences and investing in treatment and education. But Johnson has gone a few steps further. The panel he convened to overhaul the New Mexico's drug policies has recommended the decriminalization of "personal use" of marijuana as well as abandoning zero tolerance educational policies. With his usual straightforward aplomb, Governor Johnson is backing these recommendations. "You hear you're going to lose your mind and go crazy and even die if you smoke marijuana," he told Playboy magazine. "You have to tell the truth. When kids realize you're lying, they will no longer listen to you. They may think the stuff you've been telling them about other drugs isn't true either ... People try pot and they don't go crazy."

So far most Democrats have remained mum on such drug reform logic, fearful of the usual accusations that they are soft on crime. However those leaving the Clinton administration, including the President himself, have been spreading the gospel. In an interview published in the December 28 issue of Rolling Stone, Clinton said, albeit too late, he was for a "re-examination of entire policy of imprisonment."

"[A] lot of people are in prison today because they have drug problems or alcohol problems," Clinton told Rolling Stone. "And too many of them are getting out -- particularly out of state systems -- without treatment, without education, without skills, without serious efforts at job placement. There are tons of people in prison who are nonviolent offenders -- who have drug-related charges that are directly related to their own drug problems. . . Our prison policies are counterproductive."

Treatment versus criminalization: it's the oldest story of the drug war. Should the government view America's drug problems as a crisis of public health or of crime? Should it spend more money to reform the addicted and retrain the drug-dealing, or should it put the bulk of tax-payers' dollars into prisons, SWAT teams and international military operations?

Back in 1971, when Nixon launched the war on drugs, his aim was to gain the backing of white middle-class Americans horrified by drug-taking hippies and the rise in inner-city crime. Yet Nixon's initial approach was not so different from the Johnson administration's, which viewed drugs as a social disease to be treated by doctors and social workers. During Nixon's first term, a nation-wide system of methadone clinics was set up. The clinics were successful; addicts kicked the habit, cities became more livable. And for the first and only time in U.S. drug policy history treatment supplanted law enforcement.

But times changed -- and with them what was politically favorable. Nixon won the White House again in 1972, partly through appeals to restore law and order by beefing up the drug war. He authorized the formation of a new enforcement "superagency" to fight drugs, the Drug Enforcement Administration, ordered the CIA to join the drug fight and, abandoning his former drug czar's treatment approach, poured millions of dollars into going after street peddlers, smugglers and overseas growers.

Since then, not much has changed, with the exception of Carter's administrations botched attempts to reverse the treatment-versus-law enforcement tide. And so, year after year drug reformers have watched with horror as generations of inner-city blacks go to prison and politicians, eager to appear tough on crime, earmark fewer dollars for harm reduction. Ethan Nadelmann, one of the movement's leaders and founder of the Lindesmith Institute, insists this law enforcement approach has led to a cycle of violence, corruption and enrichment -- on the part of drug dealers and fund-hungry government drug agencies -- "that has ruined countless lives."

Director Steven Soderbergh's new movie "Traffic" crystallizes the drug war's throes of cyclical insanity better than any series of two-and-a-half second slices of time. During one of the film's key scenes, the newly installed drug czar (played by Michael Douglas) -- whose suburban-dwelling, Boticelli-looking daughter has become an addict and whose bewilderment at how to stop drug trafficking is aflower -- asks his staff to "think outside the box" about the drug problem. He is met with stony silence. Cut to more scenes of unenforceable laws, manipulated policeman, incredibly rich criminals, violence, addiction and death.

The message of "Traffic" is that the drug war is futile -- and it is a message being met by millions of nods. But are we really headed toward reform? But the chances are slim that George W. Bush will become an enlightened drug war president.

Bush has made almost no public statements about his views on drug policy, with the exception of a January 19 CNN interview in which -- after considerable prodding -- he said he was "willing to look at" reducing minimum sentences for first-time users and the effectiveness of drug-prevention programs.

But his attorney general, John Ashcroft, who will have great influence in directing federal drug spending and selecting the next drug czar, appears to be a firm believer of enforcement over treatment. In his clearest statement on drug policy, Ashcroft said: "A government which takes the resources that we would devote toward the interdiction of drugs and converts them to treatment resources ... is a government that accommodates us at our lowest and least."

While Governor of Missori, Ashcroft went so far as to ignore drug laws while in office. Investigative journalist Daniel Forbes reported recently that Ashcroft "agreed to look the other way" while state police seized assets of drug offenders for their agencies, when the Missouri Constitution requires drug forfeiture funds go to the state's school system.

Already Republican House drug warriors have sent a letter to Bush urging him to "re-energize" the drug war and not to drop the drug czar's cabinet-level status. "We believe that any downgrade of the drug czar position to below Cabinet status at the outset of the administration would be a misstep," their letter said. It also was critical of Clinton's efforts to reduce staff at the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Given that Bush needs the support of House Repbulicans, he will probably do their bidding and bury demands for drug reform at the federal level. But if he chooses to ignore the growing drug reform movement, he will take a gamble with his career prospects. As pundits have been saying for weeks, Bush faces a nation divided, especially along racial and geographic lines. He didn't win America's cities, where citizens have witnessed the results of massive arrests and militaristic drug sweeps. He certainly didn't take the African American vote. Gore won it by 90 percent, as he did the Latino vote by 62 percent and the Asian vote by 55 percent.

What these numbers prove is that Bush's America is essentially white and suburban -- the very demographic least affected by the drug war's spiral of crime, incarceration and civic disempowerment. Bush can appoint as many African Americans and Latinos to his cabinet as he likes, but it will not help to "heal the nation's wounds," or -- to put it more plainly -- bring non-elite urbanites and minorities over to his camp. Only federal policy aimed at the problems of this growing population of Americans can do this. Drug reform would be an excellent start.
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