This Is Your Country on Drugs

This Is Your Country on Drugs

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


So it's ending the way it was always going to, with George Bush in the White House. As the Last Marxist said all along, he had the most money, so he should win. True, in order for this to happen, Americans had to see laid bare elements in our system that are usually carefully hidden: You probably didn't know that the election process is controlled by party and campaign officials, that the machine you voted on may well not record your ballot, that in a dozen ingenious ways the black vote is still being blatantly suppressed, that people like Katherine Harris even exist. It is entirely fitting that Chief Justice Rehnquist, who voted with the conservative five-member majority to halt the counting of the Florida vote, intimidated black and Hispanic voters himself as an Arizona pollwatcher in the early 1960s. And given the general air of cronyism and corruption and self-interest that surrounds the whole Florida business, it's fitting too that Clarence Thomas's wife is working at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, where she is collecting résumés for openings in the Bush Administration, and that two of Scalia's sons are employed by law firms representing Bush. Now, having helped run out the clock, the five regret that time's up.

Who knows what might have been if Al Gore had encouraged and joined, rather than avoided and thwarted, popular outrage at black voter suppression in Florida? We might have seen racially integrated civil rights marches to rival those of the l960s, and over the same issue too.We may see them yet. If not–if we let the media bury the Florida outrages in a blizzard of blather about the need to "move on" and "come together"–we will truly have the government we deserve.

President Clinton, at least, has finally achieved the perfect political moment in which to enact the liberal agenda many readers of this magazine believe he has always secretly supported. It's taken eight years, but at last he isn't running for re-election, the Gore campaign is over, the Republicans have done their worst. If you believe Ralph Nader's 2.7 percent of the popular vote represented a message from the restive left, there's nothing now preventing Clinton from opening the envelope and reading it.

Many people cited their opposition to capital punishment as one reason they were voting for Nader. Now along comes Clinton's chance to show he feels their pain by commuting the sentence of Juan Raul Garza, the triple murderer scheduled to be the first person executed under the federal "drug kingpin" death penalty statute, and the first federal execution, period, since 1963. So did the President do not just the right thing but the costless and perhaps even politically astute thing? No. Professing himself troubled by a Justice Department review noting that 80 percent of federal death-row inmates are people of color (but not troubled enough to let them live), he granted Garza a six-month stay of execution, leaving the decision to his successor–the necrophiliac George Bush, who would cheerfully give the lethal injection himself.

Here's another test for Clinton: One of the surprises of the recent election was the victory of anti-drug war referendums in California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Utah. Now 650 religious leaders, members of the Coalition for Jubilee Clemency (, have appealed to Clinton to offer a presidential pardon to some of the thousands of Americans serving long mandatory sentences for minor drug offenses, allowing him to undo a small amount of the immense damage of the war on drugs, a cause he has relentlessly, and to my mind mysteriously, promoted. The President does seem to wish to dissociate himself from his own drug policies: In his Rolling Stone interview, he decries the "unconscionable" sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine and claims he tried to equalize it but was thwarted by a Republican Congress that wanted only to narrow it. (Actually, it was he who in 1997 proposed reducing the disparity from 100-to-1 to 10-to-1 while resisting calls to eliminate it.) He even calls for restoring voting rights to all ex-convicts and for a "re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment."

Well, better late than never. Harsh drug laws and racial bias at every step from arrest to sentencing have done immeasurable harm to poor and minority communities and to unlucky people of all sorts. Imprisonment of minor offenders has destroyed families, left children without parents, spurred a sevenfold increase in the number of women in prison between 1980 and 1997 and is a major reason that the United States now has the world's second-highest rate of incarceration. Leaving aside the horrors of prison itself, a felony conviction means probable unemployment and in thirteen states, as we now know all too well, loss of the right to vote. It isn't often that a person, even a President, gets to wave a magic wand and rectify a mass injustice. Will the President avail himself of this astonishing moral and political opportunity? I'm not holding my breath. For one thing, he's preoccupied, mulling a pardon for junk-bond king Michael Milken, who made off with billions, for which he spent twenty-two months in jail–good thing he didn't try stealing a slice of pizza in California, or he might be doing life! If pardoned, the New York Times noted, Milken would be able to vote again. If the 31 percent of black men banned as convicted felons from voting in Florida had received the same treatment, even Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris might have had trouble suppressing enough votes to deliver the White House to reactionary nincompoop George W.

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