In yet another exit interview, this one with Rolling Stone magazine publisher and editor Jann Wenner, outgoing President Bill Clinton called for reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine and said possession of small amounts of marijuana "should be" decriminalized.
The Clinton presidency has been marked by ever-increasing anti-drug budgets, huge increases in the number of people sent to prison on drug charges, and three consecutive years of record marijuana arrests. During Clinton's two terms in office, the annual number of marijuana arrests rose from 250,000 to more than 700,000.
Regarding the drug that he has famously not inhaled, Clinton told Rolling Stone, "I think that most small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places, and should be."
"Try telling that to the 700,000 people who got arrested for it last year," retorted national NORML head Keith Stroup.
"Listen," Stroup told DRCNet, "I feel two ways about this. First, I'd like to strangle the bastard for waiting until the waning days of his administration to speak out on this. Where the hell has he been, and why did 700,000 people get arrested last year if he feels this way?"
"On the other hand," Stroup continued, "we are delighted to have his support, and we will be using his statement in publicity work because it is a very powerful statement. Last time I heard a president talk like that, Jimmy Carter was in the White House."
"This is typical Clinton," Stroup argued. "It's a very positive statement, but it underscores a real weakness, which is his lack of political courage. If he had any guts he would have made this statement years ago."
"But I have to welcome the president's support, even at this late date," he concluded.
Chuck Thomas of the Marijuana Policy Project was less ambivalent.
"Clinton's drug war has been every bit as vicious as those of his predecessors," he told DRCNet. "He's addicted to being well-liked and plays to his audience. He wants to come across as a cool, open-minded guy on the drug issue when he's in Rolling Stone or on MTV, but if he were talking to scared parents he'd be talking about how we need to crack down."
"I just hope that anyone who reads that interview realizes that despite Clinton's misinformed opinion, marijuana is not decriminalized in the US," Thomas added. "He's right that it should be, but that requires more than just yukking it up with a Rolling Stone reporter."
"Maybe we need an apology from Bill Clinton," one drug reform funder told DRCNet.
Regarding sentencing disparities, Clinton told Rolling Stone that mandatory minimum sentences for drug use should be reviewed, as should the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity.
"The disparities are unconscionable between crack and powder cocaine," he said. "I tried to change that. The Republican Congress was willing to narrow but not eliminate them, the theory being that people who used crack were more violent than people who used cocaine."
"What they really meant was: People that used crack were more likely to be poor and, coincidentally, black or brown. And therefore not to have money. Those people that used cocaine were more likely to be rich, pay for it and therefore be peaceful."
If Clinton is sincere in his comments about injustice in the war on drugs, he has an opportunity to act in the coming days. He can respond to the Jubilee Justice petition campaign (http://www.jubileejustice.org), a nationwide grassroots effort that has gathered 32,000 signatures calling on the President to release all federal prisoners who have served at least five years for nonviolent drug law violations and commute the sentences of all nonviolent federal prisoners. Clinton has so far made limited use of his commutation power. A related effort, the Coalition for Jubilee Clemency (http://www.cjpf.org/clemency/), delivered a clemency petition to the President from more than 600 clergy (Associated Press wire story online).
Clinton has taken action on another drug war-related issue, an upcoming federal execution. Juan Raul Garza was scheduled for December 12th, 2000, to become the first person executed under federal law since 1963. Garza was convicted of murders committed in the course of a marijuana trafficking conspiracy in Texas.
Citing concerns about racial and geographical disparities in the application of the federal death penalty, numerous national and international groups have called on Clinton to set aside Garza's execution. (See http://www.drcnet.org/wol/146.html#garza and http://www.drcnet.org/wol/148.html#garza for our earlier stories on the Garza case.)
The President did not commute Garza's death sentence, however, but only postponed it, a second time, citing an ongoing Justice Department review of geographic and racial disparities in the federal death penalty system. Garza's fate, hence, will likely lie in the hands of the next President (AP story online).