For those who want complete reform of American drug policy, this week's primary election doesn't offer much hope.
President Nixon began the modern-day war on drugs in 1969; almost 40 years later all the presidential candidates--besides, of course, Ron Paul--enthusiastically support it. What if all the candidates for president in 2044 were to favor staying in Iraq indefinitely?
Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have far superior drug policy plans than Republican nominee John McCain, who claimed to not even know that many federal raids on state-approved medical marijuana patients have taken place. Not to mention his wife Cindy is chair of one of the nation's largest Anheuser-Busch distributors, making McCain unlikely to support any marijuana decriminalization efforts just to prevent competition.
Both Democratic candidates are preferable to McCain, but neither is the reformer this nation's drug policy needs.
They both favor ending the mandatory minimum sentencing disparity, which until recently treated 100 grams of powder cocaine the same as one gram of crack. (Currently it's 20:1.)
Both have vowed to stop the federal DEA raids McCain didn't know about. (But in a recent interview Clinton simply said she didn't think it was a "good use of law enforcement resources" to arrest medical marijuana patients.)
And unfortunately, both oppose decriminalization of marijuana.
In 2004 Obama said he favored decriminalization of marijuana. But perhaps fearful of the political ramifications of his admission of having tried marijuana and cocaine, he reversed his earlier stance without explanation.
In fact, the champion of change doesn't have much of a drug policy at all, let alone the inclination to change it. His 64-page Blueprint for America mentions illegal drugs only once, saying his plan will expand drug courts, but only for first-time nonviolent drug offenders. The way Obama's plan reads, a nonviolent heroin addict who relapses will be thrown back into the court system for punishment, helping fuel the cycle of addiction. One might call it abstinence-only.
Obama's Blueprint offers instead numerous mentions of lowering the prices of prescription drugs, a far less controversial issue (to put it mildly).
While Obama's progressive credentials and cadre of academic expert advisers make him a likely drug reform champion, the candidate's silence on the issue makes one wonder if he'll follow in the footsteps of Bill Clinton.
The first baby boomer president had admitted to previous marijuana use--although he claimed he didn't inhale--and drug reformers had high hopes when he entered the White House.
But during Clinton's presidency marijuana arrests more than doubled. His drug czar focused on arresting medical marijuana patients, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy produced an inordinate amount of anti-marijuana ads later found to be completely ineffective in preventing kids from smoking weed. Clinton even signed a law upholding the 1:100 disparity between crack and powder cocaine. At the time almost 90 percent of federal crack offenders were black.
Bill Clinton's drug policy was a complete failure. It seems possible Obama could follow the same failed route.
Hillary Clinton is better, if only by default. She has some solid drug policies, as expressed in her recent plans to deal with crime and urban issues. Her strongest plank is her proposal for a drug market eradication grant to finance low-arrest drug crackdowns. Like Obama, she also wants to expand drug courts. And part of Clinton's plan is to crack down on illegal online prescription sales to children--something no one could argue against--but she wishes to outsource it to credit card companies.
Most of her other drug policies are similarly feel-good measures. She wants to prevent meth sales to young children by making it a federal crime to distribute a controlled substance "that is colored, packaged or otherwise altered in a way designed to appeal to kids and young people"--which means she really just wants to prevent the sale of colored meth.
Both Clinton and Obama favor the Byrne Justice Assistant Grants, killed by the Bush administration but set to be reinstated by the Democratic Congress. By tying funding to arrest numbers, the grants encourage police to focus on racking up statistics instead of fighting crime. As a result police target low-level drug offenders--a failed strategy. Byrne grants set up unsupervised multi-jurisdictional drug task forces that have led to abuses: In 1999 a Byrne-funded task force arrested 46 men (40 of them black) in Tulia, Texas, on evidence fabricated by a drug informant.
The candidates' progressive policies on other issues is what makes their drug policies so disappointing.
Nearly 40 years into the war on drugs, narcotics are cheaper and purer than ever. Yet both Clinton and Obama enthusiastically support the myth that if we arrest enough people, confiscate enough property and wish really hard, we'll have a drug-free America.
It's a shame the drug policies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama aren't that much different than those of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Daniel McQuade blogs at drugroar.com
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