Adam Smith, DRCNet's new Assistant Director, shares some of his thoughts on the drug policy "debate" in this year's presidential race:
"Starting on the first day of the Dole-Kemp Administration, you will see a real war on drugs in this country!" Bob Dole on the campaign trail.
When the results of the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, released on August 20th, showed an increase in drug use among 12-17 year-olds, the Dole campaign jumped on the opportunity to portray the Clinton Administration as "soft on drugs". Thus began the current frenzied, if misguided public debate on drug policy which has enlivened, if not enlightened, the 1996 presidential campaign. The debate climaxed with candidate Dole introducing a new anti-drug message certain to be taken seriously by adolescents: "Just Don't Do It."
This focus on drug policy is seen by anti-prohibition activists as a double-edged sword, fueling both frustration with an argument over slightly different versions of the same flawed approach as well as hope that focusing the nation's attention on drug policy will present an opportunity to air alternative views.
First the bad news. President Clinton's "fake" drug war, under which teen drug use has continued its upward trend, has resulted in the U.S. `boasting' the highest rate of incarceration on the planet. Our nation, the land of the free, now imprisons approximately 1 in 167 of its citizens. There are now 10 times as many people serving time for drug offenses than there were just 15 years ago, and more people imprisoned for drug offenses than were serving time for all offenses combined at that time. Overall, our inmate population represents three times the number of people who were incarcerated in 1980. During that time, corruption of all levels of our law enforcement apparatus has continued unabated, our Constitutional protections have been steadily eroded (particularly the fourth amendment, which we believe used to say something about the government's powers of search and seizure), and the largest and most violent black market in the history of mankind continues to flourish in our schools, on our playgrounds etc. etc. etc.
With all of this, one can only shudder at the possible effects of Mr. Dole's idea of a "real" war on drugs which, while not fully articulated at the time of this printing, he has stated will feature the increased participation of all branches of the military including the National Guard. We can only assume that this means that the Dole "plan" would feature some domestic law enforcement role including a blurring, if not total obliteration, of the distinction between the military and civilian law enforcement which was once thought (perhaps quaintly) to be an essential feature of a free and democratic society. One senior defense official involved in drug policy, quoted in the Washington Post, queried; "Does he want National Guard units assisting in the arrest of U.S. citizens? I'm not sure where he's going with that."
It is worth noting that all of this tough talk is supported by absolutely no evidence that stepped-up enforcement of our drug laws results in any consistently appreciable reduction in drug use.
President Clinton has responded to the Republican attacks on his leadership in this area by pointing to Congress' failure to thus far approve his request, submitted in April, for an additional $132 million "emergency boost" for increased air and maritime patrols, as well as for falling $640 million dollars short of his requested $15.3 billion for federal anti-drug efforts for fiscal year 1997. Clinton has further attempted to insulate himself from charges of being "soft on drugs" by appointing Barry McCaffrey, a retired four star general, as the nation's "Drug Czar".
According to Arnold S. Trebach, President of The Drug Policy Foundation, "It is long past time for our political leaders to discuss alternative policies. Perhaps a future presidential administration will have the courage to do so, but it is likely that Americans will first experience another round of deja vu drug war."
As frightening, misguided and often infuriating as this debate may be, the good news is that it is a public debate nonetheless. Dissent from the drug war orthodoxy has come from across the political spectrum. For example, conservative columnist William F. Buckley, Jr. published "Bob Dole's drug plan is doomed to futility" in September; from the Libertarian right, presidential candidate Harry Browne has vowed to end "the insane war on drugs" if elected, and promised his first act as president would be to free all the nonviolent drug offenders clogging the nation's prisons. A major article in the LA Times, reprinted around the country, titled "There's no cure in political slogans or finger pointing," included perspectives from a number of leading reformers and noted that drug use rises and falls for reasons that are often out of the control of a president or congress.
The key for the growing reform movement will be to change the terms of this debate. The real questions, as we know, are not "how many thousands of new prison cells?" but whether prison cells are an appropriate or an effective response to the public health problem of substance abuse. Not "How much money for military `anti-drug' efforts?" but whether it is rational to risk the corruption of the most powerful military in the world in a futile attempt to alter the immutable laws of supply and demand. Not "How much more power must we cede to our agencies of law enforcement in the name of the exigencies of the drug war?" but whether even a total abrogation of our liberties would truly yield a `drug free' society and whether it is wise for us to take any further steps in that direction. It is questions like these, thoughtfully posed and intelligently addressed which cannot be answered in favor of the drug warriors. We must utilize this newfound (if campaign-driven) enthusiasm for debate to make our case. The opportunity is ours, and Truth is on our side.