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Nation Topics - Drug War and Drug Policy

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Steven Soderbergh's Traffic—for all its flaws—illustrates how the United States' is deluding itself in its crusade against drugs.

Our drug laws, like those concerning voting, reveal bias and backward thinking.

As the media obsessed over the seesaw presidential poll, voters across the country quietly made their choices on more than 200 disparate ballot measures and initiatives. For progressives the results are--as usual--mixed.

First the bad news: Three campaign finance reform initiatives went the wrong way. Clean-money measures providing for full public financing were thumped in Missouri and Oregon. Similar measures had been passed in previous years by voters in Maine, Massachusetts and Arizona as well as by the legislature in Vermont--but this time around powerful, well-financed business lobbies weighed in, and dirty money beat clean money. In Oregon opponents ran an effective (and expensive) radio campaign highlighting the out-of-state financial support for the reform, and it raised the specter of extremists running for office if it passed.

In Missouri corporate opponents--including Anheuser-Busch, KC Power & Light, Hallmark Cards and the Missouri Association of Realtors--poured hundreds of thousands into their victorious antireform campaign. Californians, meanwhile, approved Proposition 34, billed as campaign reform but actually cooked up by the establishment to block real reform. The returns on these three measures should compel campaign finance reform activists to rethink their strategies. These are significant and stinging defeats.

The good news is that the failed drug war was a loser in five of seven related measures nationwide. Medical marijuana initiatives passed in Colorado and Nevada (although a full marijuana-legalization bill failed in Alaska). Oregon and Utah voted to reform draconian drug forfeiture laws. And in California, Proposition 36, providing treatment instead of jail for first- and second-time drug offenders, passed easily. But a similar proposition failed in Massachusetts (which also refused to approve a universal healthcare proposal).

Another bright spot was public education. Voucher measures in California and Michigan were beaten by wide margins. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tim Draper put up millions for the California proposal--to no avail. California voters also approved a measure that makes passage of school bonds easier. But bilingual education, banned in the Golden State two years ago, was also thrown out by Arizona voters. As he did in California, businessman Ron Unz fathered and funded the Arizona measure.

Colorado voters defeated the so-called informed consent measure on abortion, but Arizona and Nebraska approved a ban on same-sex marriages and civil unions. In Maine a measure to protect gays from discrimination was defeated. In Oregon the notorious Measure 9, which outlaws "teaching" homosexuality in schools, failed. Oregonians also rejected two antiunion "paycheck protection" measures, which the state labor federation had vigorously fought.

In Michigan, it's a battle over school vouchers. In Alaska the fight is over medical marijuana. Nebraskans are being asked to outlaw civil unions. In Colorado, Amendment 25 would impose a twenty-four-hour waiting period and antiabortion propaganda on women wanting to terminate a pregnancy. These are just a few of the dozens of state initiatives and ballot measures that voters will face on November 7.

The overwhelming majority of them are in the Mountain West and on the Pacific Coast--and most are rollbacks led by conservatives. "There are some good progressive initiatives," says Amy Pritchard of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. "But progressives are mostly on the defensive." Because initiatives generally don't get the same attention that candidates do, voters tend not to focus on them until the last minute, if they focus at all, making outcomes hard to predict.

Once again California is the bloodiest and costliest of ballot- initiative battlegrounds. As much as $50 million is being spent by both sides on Proposition 38, which would widely introduce school vouchers. Silicon Valley multimillionaire Tim Draper is bankrolling the pro-voucher forces, but stiff opposition from teachers' unions and elected officials seems to be dominating. (A similar plan in Michigan could win, however.)

A similarly salutary role was not played by many of these same officials on another California measure. Cooked up by the bipartisan political establishment, Prop 34 would short-circuit real campaign finance reform by enacting a measure that is a reform in name only. In San Francisco, a creative Proposition L would close legal loopholes that allow dot-coms and other gentrifiers to turn low-income residential and industrial neighborhoods into gilded offices and condo villages. Prop 36, a measure that would reverse the logic of the failed drug war by substituting treatment for incarceration of nonviolent users, seems to be gaining the upper hand, with substantial support from several groups backed by financier George Soros. Opposition to the measure ranges from prosecutors to the otherwise liberal actor Martin Sheen.

Alaskans appear to be poised to approve a cannabis decriminalization law that would also grant pardons to people convicted under state marijuana laws and make them eligible for restitution. Nevadans, too, will be voting on whether to approve medical marijuana--as well as whether to ban gay marriage. In Arkansas and Massachusetts, conservatives are championing antitax initiatives.

Oregon's menu of twenty-six ballot measures is a nightmare for progressives. The militantly antigay Oregon Citizens Alliance has collected more than $170,000 to promote Measure 9, which would ban public schools from teaching anything that promotes or sanctions homosexuality, but opponents have raised about six times that amount. Meanwhile, progressives are also having to spend resources to oppose measures 92 and 98, which would restrict the ability of unions to collect money to use for political purposes from more than 200,000 unionized workers.

The good news from the Northwest is that Oregon is one of two states (Missouri is the other) where voters have a chance to approve clean-money campaign finance reforms. In the past few years, four states--Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Arizona--have approved such laws. In each, the special-interest-funded opposition barely put in a showing, but that has changed. "We have always been David and the other side the Goliaths," says Public Campaign executive director Nick Nyhart. "In the past Goliath never came to play. Now he's out in force."

An Oregon radio campaign tries to tar the reformers as fronts for eco-terrorists and neo-Nazis. In Missouri, corporate opponents are threatening to spend $2 million to defeat the measure; to date Anheuser-Busch has led the charge with a $25,000 contribution, followed closely by KC Power & Light, Hallmark and the Missouri Association of Realtors. "It's crucial that these two measures pass," says Nyhart. "Clean money is an idea that has been winning, and we don't want to lose the momentum." In both states, the battle is tight and likely to go down to the wire. (Readers who wish to contribute can contact Missouri Voters for Fair Elections at 314-531-9630 and the Oregon Campaign for Political Accountability at 503-796-1099.)

What if First Daughters Jenna and Barbara Bush had been caught
lighting up a joint? Would the respectable media play down that story the
way they have the Bush children's illegal purchases of alcohol?

Hardly, because marijuana is an officially proscribed demon drug while
alcohol is a mainstay of the culture, promoted incessantly as an
essential ingredient of the good life.

Marijuana use, the drug war zealots insist, despite considerable
evidence to the contrary, leads inevitably to the harder stuff. That's
why the US Supreme Court won't risk the health of dying cancer patients
with a few tokes of physician-prescribed pot. But those margaritas that
the Bush girls grew up to prefer, heck that's just child's play,
something all college students do and soon grow out of.

Not so their father, unless you think abusing alcohol until the age of
40 is still child's play. Had he hit someone on that night when he was
arrested for DUI, it might have undermined George W.'s charmed ascension
to the presidency.

Sorry, but I'm with the tabloids on this one. It is big news that the
commander in chief of the drug war has not been able to control his own
daughters' illegal behavior.

Obviously, Bush has not followed his own advice, offered while
announcing the revving up of the drug war, that parents take more
responsibility for their children's conduct.

Should the Bush children have gone to church more often to be exposed
to those faith-based anti-drug and alcohol programs that the President
embraced? Did the Bush parents always know where their children were?
Perhaps the Bush twins were permitted to watch too many Hollywood movies.

Imagine the vituperation that would have been visited upon the Clinton
family if Chelsea, like Jenna, had used the Secret Service to pick up an
underage boyfriend, accused of public intoxication, from jail. But when
it comes to family values, Republicans' messed-up personal lives are
chuckled off as just another American-as-apple-pie growing up experience.

Did not the President's mother elicit howls of laughter from her
Junior League audience when she made passing reference to her son's
alcohol addiction on the very day that her granddaughters were charged
with breaking the law? "He is getting back some of his own," Grandma Bush
said, with more than a trace of wonderment that her son George W., the
underachiever and, by his own admission, often inebriated prankster, is
now the President of us all.

But alcoholism wasn't really funny for George W. or he wouldn't have
had to go cold turkey and work white-knuckle hard these past fifteen years at
staying sober. Alcoholism is one of the nation's leading problems and
when then-Gov. Bush signed a "zero tolerance" law in 1997 on underage
drinking, the reason offered was that Texas led the United States in
alcohol-related fatalities.

More than 100,000 people die each year from alcohol, so controlling
its use is of public importance. This guy as governor and President has
responded to problems of substance abuse by acting to throw even more
people into jail although that course has already given us the largest
per-capita prison population in the world. Yet, when his own daughter now
stands but one more arrest away from a possible six months in the slammer
because of the law then-Gov. Bush signed, the President is speechless.

"The President views this as a family matter, a private matter, and he
will treat it as such," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer huffed.

Not so fast.

Alcoholism is the social problem that this President best understands,
and instead of slinking off into silence, he should provide a public
example of what he has claimed parenting is all about.

This is the time to talk honestly to his daughters and the nation
about the lessons of substance abuse, and particularly, whether the tough
law and order approach is just dumb. Unless, of course, he really
believes that his daughter would benefit from six months behind bars for
ordering yet another margarita.

Maybe the drinking age should be dropped to 18 years old, as most of
the Bush daughters' classmates seem to feel. Why make criminals of the
young, most of whom are quite responsible in making their own decisions
about when and what to drink? But isn't that even truer of an adult
cancer patient who uses marijuana to ward off nausea?

Most of the media regard the coy refusal of George W.

Elizabeth Dole won't break the law.
McCain has scored no coke.
The thought of Hatch with smack or crack
Is palpably baroque.

Follow these links for the other articles in this forum: reponses by Peter Kornbluh, Mike Gray and Elliott Currie--and Massing's concluding thoughts.

In mid-October 1996, two months after the publication of Gary Webb's series "Dark Alliance" in the San Jose Mercury News, an extraordinary town meeting took place in Compton, California, o

Follow these links for the other articles in this forum: the original article by Michael Massing, and reponses by Peter Kornbluh and Elliott Currie--and Massing's concluding thoughts.

Blogs

Bolivia has found a way to cut coca production without sacrificing the leaf's cultural importance or cracking down on small growers. But Washington's not having it.

September 22, 2014

An examination into our broken cannabis policy is well overdue—and should be about more than just marijuana.

August 4, 2014

The ACLU finds that SWAT teams spend more time kicking down suspected drug offenders’ doors than rescuing hostages or stopping gunmen.

June 24, 2014

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April 30, 2014

Obama has so far granted fewer pardons than any modern US president.

April 21, 2014

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April 18, 2014

The proposal would reduce sentences for nonviolent drug traffickers by about a year.

March 13, 2014

US officials claim the capture of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán is a major drug war victory. They're wrong.

March 7, 2014

The unlikely allies are leading a push to reform sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenders.

March 4, 2014

An internal review of the US Border Patrol raises serious questions about the agency’s use-of-force policy.

February 28, 2014