With only three weeks to go until the November elections, drug policy in the Bush and Gore campaigns has been notable primarily for its absence. With few exceptions, such as Bush's dyspeptic one-shot broadside at Clinton administration "failures" last week, neither candidate has shown much interest in hailing the drug war nor addressing its flaws.
What actual policy proposals have emerged from either camp amount to merely incremental changes -- a few more High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas here, more testing of prisoners there, another $2.7 billion for prevention over there -- that fail to challenge the entrenched bipartisan consensus on drug policy. In that sense, the Bush and Gore proposals amount to little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
But neither campaign has much heart for drug policy. The majority of drug policy mentions have come only in response to direct questions, such as when Al Gore beat a hasty retreat on medical marijuana after being queried by a viewer on MTV. Back in the primary season, Gore told audiences in New Hampshire he favored limited use for medical purposes. By mid-May, and facing George Bush instead of Bill Bradley, Gore had backpedaled until he was in sync with the official Clinton administration line that there was "no scientific evidence" that marijuana had any proven medical uses.
In a recent article exploring this theme, the Washington Post attributed the lack of candidate interest in drug policy to the decline in violence surrounding the crack trade, the lack of constituency for improved treatment services, and the general similarity of Bush and Gore's positions. (In a frustrated search for differences, the Post mentioned that Gore supported increased treatment in prisons, while Bush supported faith-based treatment in prison and out.)
The Post did not mention two other salient factors, the "hypocrisy" factor and the lack of any evidence that either candidate has any new ideas. Al Gore has admitted smoking marijuana well beyond any "experimental" stage, and George Bush's coy silence on his drug activities prior to 1977 is widely and uncontroversially assumed to mean that he in fact used some drug, presumably cocaine. For either man to make a big issue out of sending drug users to prison would expose him the sort of derision that embarrasses even professional politicians.
As for the lack of any new ideas, their respective proposals speak for themselves.
DRCNet spoke with several prominent members of the drug reform movement in an effort to dig a little deeper into the disappearance of drug policy as a major campaign issue and how and in what form in may reemerge.
For Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy, a combination of these factors explains the issue's absence from the campaign. "Both candidates are very status quo," Zeese told DRCNet, "there's no conflict between them. Nader has tried to bring the issue into play, but he hasn't been able to get any traction."
But also, Zeese argues, "There is the hypocrisy issue. Both candidates have a record of past drug use they would probably prefer that the public not focus on."
As important, Zeese said, is the lack of new ideas. "Neither candidate has solutions," he said, "and while neither is stupid enough to think the drug war is working, neither is smart enough to come up with an alternative."
Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation told DRCNet, "Bush and Gore are like two undertakers arguing over how much rouge to put on the corpse."
Zeese believes Bush and Gore, along with other drug war camp followers, may be missing an opportunity. "The last time a major party candidate really tried to attack his opponent as 'soft on drugs' it was Bob Dole, and he couldn't get any traction with it in 1996."
"If these guys were smart enough to come up with alternatives, with positive solutions, they could win votes," Zeese said. "Polling shows that politicians can advocate public health not drug war, they can talk about needle exchange, they can talk about medical marijuana -- these are all popular issues.
"If you look at these successful initiatives, you can see that these positions are popular with the voters," he continued. "The candidates are missing an opportunity in not advocating a public health approach, but they balance that against the potential attacks and think its best to stay away. Why take the risk?"
Indeed. Neither the national media nor powerful interest groups have shown the least interest in drug policy this time around. And unless a drug policy question makes it onto the final presidential debate, Bush and Gore will be able to waltz into November without having to defend or justify their tweedledum-tweedledee reliance on the same old drug war dog and pony show.
(Next week's issue of The Week Online will feature a discussion of the various viewpoints held within the drug policy reform movement on the subject of single-issue voting and whether or not drug reformers should go with third party candidates or pick the preferable candidate from the major parties.)