A Foul Tragedy

Democrats fled in the face of danger

Garrison Keillor

We Democrats are at our worst when we try to emulate Republicans as we did in signing onto the war” on drugs that has ruined so many young lives. 

The cruelty of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 is stark indeed, as are the sentencing guidelines that impose mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug possession – guidelines in the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that sailed through Congress without benefit of public hearings, drafted before an election by Democrats afraid to be labeled soft on drugs.” As a result, a marijuana grower can land in prison for life without parole while a murderer might be in for eight years. No rational person can defend this; it is a Dostoevskian nightmare and it exists only because politicians fled in the face of danger. That includes Bill Clinton, under whose administration the prosecution of Americans for marijuana went up hugely, so that now there are more folks in prison for marijuana than for violent crimes. More than for manslaughter or rape. This only makes sense in the fantasy world of Washington, where perception counts for more than reality. To an old Democrat, who takes a ground view of politics–What is the actual effect of this action on the lives of real people?–it is a foul tragedy that makes you feel guilty about enjoying your freedom.

If suddenly on a Friday night the red lights flash and the cops yank your teenage son and his little envelope of marijuana into the legal meatgrinder and some bullet-headed prosecutor decides to flex his muscle and charge your teenager – because he had a .22 rifle in his upstairs bedroom closet – with a felony involving the use of a firearm, which under our brutal sentencing code means he can be put on ice for 20 years, and the prosecutor goes at him hammer and tong and convinces a passive jury and your boy’s life is sacrificed so this creep can run for Congress next year – this is not your cross alone to bear. If the state cuts off your right hand with a meat cleaver on my account and I don’t object, then it is my cleaver and my fingerprints on it.

I don’t dare visit Sandstone Federal Prison here in Minnesota for fear of what I’d see there: People who chose marijuana, a more benign drug than alcohol, and got caught in the religious war that we Democrats in a weak moment signed onto. God help us if we form alliance with such bullies as would destroy a kid’s life for raising cannabis plants. 

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Garrison Keillor is the host and writer of A Prairie Home Companion, now in its 34th year on the air and a syndicated newspaper columnist.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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