DRCNet Special Report: Drug War Under Fire from Left, Right -- The Battle Begins 5/3/98

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The Drug War, and the Clinton Administration's leadership on the issue, came under attack from nearly all sides this week in a confluence of events which may ultimately be remembered as the Fort Sumter of the brewing civil war over America's drug policy. Republicans, who have labeled Clinton's 1998 drug war strategy a "weak" series of "half-steps" (despite America's status as the world's #1 incarcerator), unveiled their counter-strategy this week, while the NAACP, the Urban League and the head of the Congressional Black Caucus sent an open letter to the president calling on him as well as Congress to "re-examine" the Drug War's focus on prisons.


House Republicans, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich and his newly-created "Speakers' Task Force for a Drug-Free America" chaired by J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), unveiled a "comprehensive, World War II-style" drug war legislative package on Thursday (4/30). Details of the package will be presented to the public over an eight-week period at a series of orchestrated media events complete with blue ribbon-wearing participants. The package, which will include at least a dozen separate pieces of legislation, is being compared by House Republican staffers to the 1994 "Contract With America," both in its scope and its intended centrality to the election-year message of the party.

While much of the legislation is still being written, the bills will range from largely symbolic, such as drug testing of Congressional Representatives and their staffs, to punitive, such as the denial of direct or indirect federal funding to any organization involved in providing syringes, to overtly war-like, such as the reinstitution and expansion of military deployments on the US side of our national borders. The stated goal of the Republican package is to "win" the drug war by creating a "drug-free" America in four years. Longer sentences, the death penalty, technological upgrades in interdiction and federal law enforcement, a doubling of the border patrol and incentives for expanded work-place drug testing will also be addressed.

Unlike the recent rhetoric of Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey, who has said that we ought not call our drug policy a "war", the Republicans are openly embracing the lingo of destruction. Rep. Hastert, chairman of the task force, told the press, "We are in a war with real casualties. This Congress will deploy its legislative battleplan with the War on Drugs on three major fronts...", those being demand reduction, supply reduction, and accountability.

Andrew Weinstein, a spokesman for House Speaker Gingrich, told The Week Online, "We expect strong backing for this agenda. This is not a political initiative, it is a substantive plan, a powerful and comprehensive anti-drug strategy designed to protect our children against drugs. And while it is not designed as a political tool, we expect that a number of Republicans will be running very strongly behind this message in the 1998 campaign."

At the press conference on Thursday, more than fifty Republican legislators and a hundred local schoolchildren shared the stage with Speaker Gingrich. Gingrich told reporters that it was imperative that the Drug War be won in four years. Otherwise, he said, "The public will get cynical, and the movement to legalize drugs will succeed."

Reformers, however, have a different take on both the timing and the impact of the GOP initiative. Kevin Zeese, President of the Common Sense for Drug Policy Foundation, told The Week Online, "I think that this strategy is going to misfire badly for the Republicans and for Drug Warriors in general. A few years ago, this kind of thing would have flown easily. The level of understanding on this issue has taken quantum leaps, however, as evidenced by the NAACP-Urban League-Maxine Waters letter this week. The public clearly understands that the Drug War doesn't work, and I wouldn't be so sure that a plan which essentially calls for more of the same is going to be politically well-received. I think that Gingrich is misreading his polls on this, and as a consequence, we are going to be able to use the publicity that this will generate to educate the public about alternatives to a policy of never-ending war."


While the Clinton Administration prepares to defend its Drug War efforts against attack from the right, the decision, made last week (4/20), against lifting the ban on the use of federal anti-AIDS funds for syringe exchange has apparently broken the dam and unleashed, if not a torrent, then at least a stream of dissent from the President's left. This backlash has come specifically from officials and organizations concerned over the Drug War's devastating impact on poor and minority communities.

In an open letter to President Clinton, signed by an impressive list of national leaders, including Maxine Waters, Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the presidents of the NAACP and the Mexican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the call was raised for a total elimination of the 100-1 sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine. And while that disparity is the focus of the letter, the issue of the Drug War's disparate overall impact, as well as its reliance on incarceration, are also addressed. It reads in part:

"The American anti-drug effort's focus on imprisonment over treatment and its targeting of small-scale African American and Latino drug offenders has devastated minority communities and raised public concern about the injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing." The letter goes on to cite a 1997 Rand Corporation study which shows the relative cost-effectiveness of drug treatment over either mandatory minimum sentencing or standard policing.


The first hints that this battle over the Drug War was looming came in February, when the Clinton Administration released its 1998 Drug Strategy, including a 10-year plan to reduce illegal drug consumption by 50 percent (http://www.drcnet.org/rapid/1998/2-13.html#ondcp). That plan was attacked by Gingrich and other Republicans as "weak", and they vowed to craft a plan to "win" the war in 4 years (http://www.drcnet.org/rapid/1998/2-20.html#gingrich and http://www.drcnet.org/rapid/1998/2-20.html#editorial).

If Gingrich's four-year plan sounds ambitious, it is perhaps less so than the goal laid out by Rep. Bill McCollum (R-FL), the Task Force Co-Chairman, who is focusing his efforts on the supply-side. McCollum's stated goal is to reduce the amount of drugs entering the U.S. by 80% in just three years. McCollum has been pushing in recent weeks for increased military aid to Colombia, and observers of the region worry that the U.S. is backsliding into an unwinnable quagmire in that nation's 35 year-old civil war (http://www.drcnet.org/rapid/1998/3-27.html#colombia).

As noted above, Speaker Gingrich made overt reference during this week's press event to the possibility of a war-weary public joining "the movement to legalize drugs." This backhanded reference to the growing strength of the anti-war movement was widely noted among reformers.

Ty Trippet, spokesman for The Lindesmith Center, a drug policy think tank, told The Week Online, "It's interesting to hear Newt Gingrich admit to his fear of the reform movement. For those who are professionally and politically wedded to the idea of war at all costs as the solution to the problems associated with substance abuse, it would be hard not to notice that around the world, alternatives to punitive prohibition are being sought."

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Issue #40, 5/3/98 DRCNet Special Report: Drug War Under Fire from Left, Right -- The Battle Begins | Members of Congressional Black Caucus Call for Drug Czar's Resignation over Syringe Exchange | Kemba's Nightmare, Part II | Marijuana Activist Arrested after Appearing on Frontline | Medical Marijuana in California | Julian Heicklen: Penn State Protest Update | Opiate Maintenance Conferences in New York | Editorial: Prohibition's Final Battle
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