Bush Ignores the Anti-Drug War Tide

Bush Ignores the Anti-Drug War Tide
Posted by FoM on January 31, 2001 at 08:45:55 PT
By Don Hazen and Tamara Straus, AlterNet
Source: AlterNet
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 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 among 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." An illustration, please? In a stroke of impeccable timing, director Steven Soderbergh has released his movie "Traffic," which, depending on box office sales, may provide the ultimate tip to public opinion. No two-and-a-half slice of time can better crystallize how much the drug war is in the throes of cyclical insanity. 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, 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? Is there even a slim chance George W. Bush will become an enlightened drug war president? So far, it is doubtful. 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 he made no specific policy recommendations. While governor of Texas, he let his state take the national lead in imprisoning its citizens -- a grim harbinger of what he will do as President. Perhaps more worrisome is that Bush's 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." So much for all the spilled ink on harm reduction benefits, not to mention the efforts of departing Attorney General Janet Reno, who increased by five-fold the federal budget for drug courts, which advocate treatment as an alternative to incarceration. Ashcroft even has gone so far as to ignore drug laws while in office. Investigative journalist Daniel Forbes reported recently that as Missouri Governor 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. Ashcroft and Bush are just the team to ignore national opinion about the drug war. Both men, and especially Ashcroft, are out of touch with the views of most Americans. They oppose abortion, when the majority of Americans want to keep it legal and birth control accessible. They equate an unhealthy society with the demise of religion, patriotism and authority, when such traditionalist vitriols increasingly fall on deaf ears. Newt Gingrich's short-lived reign as pit bull against post-Œ60s social change is proof that Americans are no longer swayed by the usual conservative tactics. Bush knows the "angry white man" approach no longer works, which is why he blathers on about tolerance and inclusiveness. Still, he has a heavy debt to pay to the religious right, and as every day passes he sends in another thank you note. Giving the job of attorney general to Ashcroft, the son of an evangelical preacher who does not drink or dance and blocked the appointments of a qualified African American judge and a gay politician, is item number one. Withdrawing funding to international agencies that provide abortion and birth control information is item number two. Creating a White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, which will lift regulatory barriers that previously prevented government money from being channeled to religious groups, is item number three. Perhaps item number four will be the appointment of a drug czar whose "compassionate conservatism" will equally please the Republican right. 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," said their letter. It also was critical of Clinton's efforts to reduce staff at the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Given that Bush needs these people, he will probably do their bidding and bury demands for drug reform at the federal level. But if he does this, if he chooses to ignore the growing drug reform movement, he will lose much. As pundits have been decrying 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. But none of this will probably worry Bush. He is likely to write off urban voters and urban dominated states and continue to concentrate on his base in the South and West, in small states and among middle-class suburbanites who vote in very high numbers. Bush will try to expand his base in 2004 by bringing back some of the white female voters he lost to Gore with a focus on education and tax cuts, while those who champion drug reform will likely be left out of the equation. And another ironic moment in the drug war will have passed us by. Source: AlterNet (CA)Author: Don Hazen and Tamara Straus, AlterNetPublished: January 29, 2001Address: 77 Federal Street, San Francisco, CA 94107Copyright: 2001 Independent Media InstituteE-Mail: info alternet.orgWebsite: Articles - George Bush
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Comment #3 posted by Robbie on January 31, 2001 at 16:44:38 PT
Bush speak
Man, I wish I could remember the words exactly, but I've forgotten. Anyway, to paraphrase something he said about education, and this was like his second day:"We are going to stop giving federal money to programs that don't work"YAY! The Wo(s)D is over!! :-)Oh well...politicians never say what they mean.
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Comment #2 posted by Lehder on January 31, 2001 at 16:04:25 PT
Here is a page of Bushisms: it out. Here's the pagemaster's favorite:"I am mindful not only of preserving executive powersfor myself, but for predecessors as well."—Washington, D.C., Jan. 29, 2001 It shows - it's gotta be - that people are moved by the images of television and not by any substantive debate.He'll never replace Dan Quayle, but we're assured plenty of good laughs.
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Comment #1 posted by jAHn on January 31, 2001 at 12:47:38 PT
Blind People...
Blind Consumerism DID IT AGAIN!!! There ya go, america...Keep Buying into Lies. Pillsbury. The Texas Rangers. Texaco.Budweiser. Who knows what else!?!
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