In his first interviews as attorney general, John Ashcroft pledged
to "reinvigorate," "renew," "refresh" and "re-launch" the war on
drugs, arguing that the Clinton administration had been lax in fighting
It's difficult to imagine how Bill Clinton could have been much
harsher, short of public executions of drug dealers. Under his administration,
federal prisons opened at a rate of almost one a month, confining
a population that is now 58 percent drug offenders--almost three
times the percentage in state prisons, according to figures from
the Washington-based Sentencing
Project. The Clinton administration also refused to fund needle-exchange
programs, prosecuted medical-marijuana patients, and began to take
sides in the Colombian civil war in the name of fighting cocaine.
A devout prohibitionist, Ashcroft is now the top-ranking federal
official dealing with
drugs. As of early March, President George W. Bush had not yet appointed
anyone to head the White House drug-policy office. (Candidates mentioned
include former Florida Rep. Bill McCollum, a militant prohibitionist,
and Elizabeth Dole, who has backed both more drug treatment and more
drug testing.) "Ashcroft is the only person in the country who thinks
that drug treatment doesn't make sense," says Marc Mauer of the Sentencing
Yet, facing a diverse and growing movement to ameliorate or end
prohibition, Bush's drug policy may turn out to be less fanatically
hardline than his father's. "He's made some good noises in some
good directions," says Jerry Epstein, president of the Drug
Policy Forum of Texas. Last year, Bush suggested that medical
marijuana was a states' rights issue. More recently, he has dropped
hints about increasing spending for drug treatment and reducing
the 100-to-1 disparity between federal sentences for crack and powder
cocaine. (For his part, Ashcroft has advocated reducing the crack/coke
sentencing disparity by increasing penalties for powder cocaine.)
Whether Bush means it is another story. After a Bush aide met with
marijuana patient Tiffany Landreth in Austin last September, his
office issued a statement that "current federal law bans all marijuana
use, and the governor does not support changing those laws." As
governor, Bush signed a law in 1997 increasing the minimum for possession
of less than a gram of cocaine--barely enough for one night of "youthful
indiscretion"--from probation to six months in a state jail. About
3,000 people are now incarcerated under that law. And Bush also
"adamantly supported" school districts that wanted to test all students
for drugs, according to William Harrell, head of the Texas
branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We should all
collectively shiver," Harrell says. Bush's record, he adds, was
one of "total militarized policing and total disregard for constitutional
Harrell points out that in 1999 the Bush administration named undercover
cop Tom Coleman "Lawman of the Year." Coleman's accomplishment was
setting up the arrests of 43 people in the small Panhandle town
of Tulia on cocaine charges. Forty of the people arrested were black,
and the ACLU has filed a civil rights lawsuit charging that many
of them were framed--in two separate trials, Coleman testified to
being in different places at the same time (see
"Easy Targets," page 23). Harrell says the drug task force program
that assigned Coleman to Tulia was "designed and directed" by Bush's
office, and specifically targets users and small-time dealers in
areas where convictions are easy to get.
Texas now has more people in prison than any state. According to
state figures, its 107
prisons, 17 state jails and nine "substance abuse felony punishment"
facilities hold 151,000 inmates. A 2000 study by the Washington-based
Criminal Justice Institute found that Texas had 1 percent of its entire
population (and 3.9 percent of its black population) in prisons or
local jails, the second-
Treatment programs, like
this one in
Harlem, get little funding.
KRT PHOTO BY SUSAN WATTS/
NEWYORK DAILY NEWS
highest rate in the nation after Louisiana. One-fifth of them were
imprisoned on drug charges. Between 1988 and 1998, according to the
Drug Policy Forum of Texas, the state opened 77 new prisons--but just
one new state university campus. "Nothing that he did as governor
indicated a willingness to move away from prohibition," Epstein says.
However, unlike his father, who reigned at the height of the '80s
crack scare (and also looked the other way at the Nicaraguan contras'
fundraising deliveries from Colombia to California), George W. Bush
faces a growing anti-drug war movement that includes significant
numbers of conservatives. The orthodoxy of prohibition--that illegal
drugs breed violence and depravity and must be stamped out by any
means necessary--is being challenged on numerous fronts. Nine states
and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing medical
marijuana, despite a 1970 federal law that declares marijuana to
have "no accepted medical use."
One strain in what is awkwardly called the "drug-law-reform movement"
focuses on "harm reduction" policies such as needle exchange. It
is more realistic to expect addicts to take small steps toward self-preservation
than one giant leap to abstinence, the argument goes, and it's better
for them to shoot two bags of heroin with a clean needle than to
shoot 10 bags with a virus-infested set of "gimmicks." Another strain,
more libertarian and marijuana-oriented, asserts that the government
has no right to jail people for private behavior comparable to drinking
or home-brewing. Others question the length and inflexibility of
drug sentences, the numbers of people in prison, and the racial
disparities among those behind bars.
New Mexico Gov.
Gary Johnson, a Republican with libertarian sensibilities, advocates
legalizing marijuana. While he believes that employers have the
right to drug-test workers, and personally opposes drug use, Johnson
is one of the few politicians who doesn't say he "experimented"
with marijuana. "I smoked it," he emphasizes. Another Republican,
New York Gov. George Pataki, has proposed some easing of the state's
draconian "Rockefeller laws," which mandate 15 years to life for
possession of four ounces of heroin or cocaine, regardless of the
defendant's role in the deal.
And with three-fourths of the nation's drug prisoners being black
or Latino (that figure is more than 90 percent in New York, Maryland
and Illinois), African-Americans, whose neighborhoods bore the worst
of the crack-trade wars, are increasingly weary of seeing multitudes
of their young men locked up. Black-community pressure got President
Clinton to free Kemba Smith, who served six years of a 24-year sentence
essentially for being a crack wholesaler's ex-girlfriend. "I don't
think the law was intentionally designed to oppress one group of
people over another. But in its implementation, it certainly has
had a disproportionate effect on people of color," former Baltimore
Mayor Kurt Schmoke told High
Times last year.
Some of this dissent may reach into the Bush administration. Epstein
policy ultimately will be determined by whoever wins the power struggle
between committed drug warriors, advocates of more treatment and a
handful of libertarians. One possibility that may emerge would be
a "compassionate conservative" model: continued prohibition coupled
with a few token statements and programs to give it a veneer of humanity.
"Status quo with a little sugar on top," says Allen St. Pierre of
the National Organization for the
Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
Under Clinton, federal prisons
at a rate of one per month.
"I'm more hopeful than I expected to be," says Kevin Zeese of Common
Sense for Drug Policy. He sees possible movement in five areas:
increased treatment, easing mandatory minimum sentences, reducing
racial profiling, eliminating the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity,
and maybe legalizing needle exchanges. Ashcroft is an ardent foe
of needle-exchange programs, Zeese notes, but Health and Human Services
Secretary Tommy Thompson funded them while he was governor of Wisconsin.
Drug courts, in which defendants are sentenced to mandatory treatment
instead of jail, would fit the "compassionate conservative" model
perfectly. They are the centerpiece of Pataki's proposal in New
York, which he released in January. It would allow judges to send
some people charged with possession of cocaine or heroin to a court-run
rehabilitation program, with probation if they complete it, and
prison if they don't. However, most of the state's drug prisoners
are low-level dealers with prior felony convictions and would not
be eligible. (Democratic legislators have introduced a counterproposal
that includes them.)
But compulsory treatment brings up several caveats. First, there's
little funding for voluntary treatment, so focusing resources on
compulsory treatment means that poorer addicts would have to to
be arrested before they could get help. Second, if it is crossed
with Bush's plans to turn social services over to "faith-based"
groups, the result could be forcing drug users into programs telling
them the only way to conquer their addiction is to accept Jesus
Christ as their personal savior. Third, treatment costs money. Bush
has promised to add $1 billion in federal funding, a small fraction
of the amount spent on drug enforcement. It is generally estimated
that about 30 percent of total government drug spending goes to
treatment and education. President Clinton vowed to increase that
proportion, St. Pierre recalls, but never did.
Whatever hopes people have about Bush, they do appear to contain
at least some wishful thinking, largely stemming from the "Nixon
going to China" theory: that it will take a Republican to end the
war on drugs, someone free of any hippie-liberal "soft on crime"
stigma. Gary Johnson might fit that bill, but it is extremely difficult
to imagine George W. Bush legalizing marijuana.
For one, a significant part of his political base comes from the
culture warriors of the
Christian right, for whom marijuana and drugs are a central moral
issue. The Family Research Council opposes legalizing industrial hemp,
the minimal-THC strain of cannabis grown for fiber. FRC drug-policy
specialist Robert Maginnis writes that "hemp is clearly identified
with the counterculture" (not exactly untrue) and that legalizing
it "sends the wrong message" about marijuana. The FRC also opposes
medical marijuana. In a pending Supreme Court case, it filed one of
only two amicus briefs supporting the government's appeal of a lower-court
ruling that "medical necessity" may exempt an Oakland "cannabis buyers'
club" from federal prosecution.
Colombia offers the twin
drug cartels and leftist guerillas.
Bush also has to face a potential quagmire in Colombia. While U.S.
intervention there clearly fails the "Powell Doctrine" tests of
a clear objective and an easy victory, Bush seems unlikely to abandon
a military mission in progress, especially one supposedly against
the twin demons of drug cartels and leftist guerrillas. (Plan Colombia
conveniently ignores the right-wing paramilitaries' involvement
in the drug trade.)
Bush's delay in picking a drug czar could be a sign that he wants
to avoid drug issues as much as possible. It is hard to argue that
prohibition is not an awful flop. It can't stop what it's meant
to stop: The nation's prison and jail population has quadrupled
since Ronald Reagan took office 20 years ago, but cocaine and heroin
prices have plummeted. Most Americans under 55 have either smoked
marijuana themselves or know people who have, yet pot busts now
average 700,000 a year, with 70,000 in New York City alone last
year. And the excesses of the war on drugs, from search-and-seizure
abuses to the racial disparities in who goes to prison, are increasingly
On issues such as racial profiling, Epstein says, "They have to
do damage control. They can't avoid addressing it." But does Bush
have the desire to make significant changes, or the courage to face
the furious opposition that would come if he did? If you can't arrest
your way out of the problem, but don't want to consider legalization,
what do you do?
"He couldn't even tell his kids that he'd been arrested for drunk
driving," notes NORML's St. Pierre. "Considering his inability to
talk about drugs during the campaign, and his evasiveness about
his own drug use, I hope lack of communication doesn't become national
Steven Wishnia is a senior editor at High Times and
the author of Exit 25 Utopia (The Imaginary Press).
Read Jasmina Kelemen's article, "Easy