Most of the media regard the coy refusal of George W. Bush to indicate whether he did or did not use cocaine–when he was, in his words, “young and irresponsible”–as a simple matter of candidate candor. But this battle of wills between Bush and the press corps goes far deeper. Any honest discussion by Bush would presumably lead to another question he’d rather not answer: whether his young and irresponsible self would have benefited from the harsh mandatory-minimum sentences he embraces for first-time Texas drug offenders. George W. Bush, like Bill Clinton when asked about pot smoking in 1992, is a walking exhibit of how the prohibitionist political culture collides with facts and common sense on drugs.
That collision–recognized by a growing chorus of judges, prosecutors and police officials–creates an opportunity for discussion of a sane drug policy, which is the subject of this special issue of The Nation, guest-edited by Michael Massing. Massing and the other contributors offer a variety of sometimes-contending viewpoints on a provocative question: How can the left generate new ideas that oppose the current drug war, without glossing over the social disruptions caused by drug abuse, and move toward a public-health-based approach to drug policy?
If ever there was a moment for fresh strategies, this is it. For the first time since the seventies, the national drug consensus is rife with fractures. This summer the unlikely trio of Henry Hyde, Bob Barr and the ACLU collaborated to pass Hyde’s reform of the civil confiscation of drug suspects’ property: a financial boon to police agencies based on the presumption of guilt, and one of the most chilling weapons in the prosecutor’s arsenal. Among the diverse supporters of forfeiture reform is philanthropist George Soros (interviewed by Russ Baker on page 32), who has used his financial might to move the drug policy debate in new directions. A few prominent politicians–among them Republicans like Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico and Senate candidate Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island–are not only acknowledging their histories of recreational drug use but pursuing reform agendas. And a growing number of liberal and conservative federal judges are vocally dissenting from drug-sentencing requirements.
Although voices within the Clinton Administration sometimes acknowledge the need for a new approach, Clinton has ultimately failed to back them up. Last year, after releasing a report documenting the lifesaving value of needle-exchange programs, the Administration scandalously declined to endorse them. In July the White House issued a series of proposals to make methadone more widely available to the nation’s 800,000 heroin addicts, accrediting hospitals and doctors to routinely prescribe a treatment now available only at a small number of specialized clinics–a fundamental and welcome shift. But this one step forward was soon followed by two large steps back in drug foreign policy. In late August, taking the side of Colombia’s generals and right-wing paramilitaries against moderate President Andres Pastrana, White House drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey and Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering presented Pastrana with an ultimatum: End peace talks with Marxist guerrillas who support themselves by protecting drug trafficking or face a cutoff of aid to an economy already in a tailspin. This dangerous intervention is emblematic of how current drug enforcement strategies distort not only US criminal justice but also foreign policy, with no measurable diminution of drug abuse or increase in public safety.
For the most part, Washington–elected officials and the media alike–remains trapped by the dishonest language of drug war orthodoxy. As Carol Bergman notes in her essay on page 46, true reform is more likely to originate at the state level, where local coalitions dramatize the social and financial costs of the current drug strategy–engaging families who have suffered the destruction wrought by mandatory-minimum sentences, or district attorneys and prison and police officials charged with enforcing the unenforceable. Indeed, enlightened prosecutors like San Francisco’s Terence Hallinan and ground-level leaders like Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore (whose city’s unique experiment in treatment on demand is described on page 22) see a punitive drug regime as a dead end, making streets more dangerous rather than safer.
To employ the language of twelve-step programs: Ending the government’s addiction to a repressive drug regime requires an end to denial–perhaps individual denial by leaders like George W. Bush, certainly the collective denial of policy failure. A progressive drug reform campaign must aim to hasten that reckoning but also to provide a vision of an alternative drawing on commitments to civil liberties, public health and social equity.