In a decision with important implications for drug policy, President-elect George W. Bush has nominated Senator John Ashcroft (R-M)) to be his Attorney General. Ashcroft, who lost a November Senate race to the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, is also a former Missouri governor and attorney general. He is also a self-described Christian conservative who neither smokes, drinks, nor dances, and has a long record as staunch drug warrior.
An anti-abortion, pro-death penalty ideologue, Ashcroft stands to be a polarizing figure. His ratings by various advocacy groups suggest a sharp divide: He scores 100% with the conservative Christian Coalition and Phyllis Schafly's Eagle Forum, but gets a big fat goose egg from liberal groups such as the National Organization for Women and the League of Conservation voters. The Leadership Conference for Civil Rights gave Ashcroft a 10% rating.
Civil rights, civil liberties, and women's groups are already gearing up to challenge the nomination in the Senate, and drug policy activists are busily plotting whether and how to help, though the conventional wisdom is that Ashcroft will be seated as the next Attorney General.
Ashcroft introduced the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act to increase penalties for manufacturing or trafficking that drug, and some of his comments on that occasion give insight into both Ashcroft's thinking and why drug reformers are worried about it:
"... But there is another factor that motivates my opposition to meth: I want to fight meth because its use and production is wrong. And too few people are willing to stand up these days and call drugs wrong... much of our current predicament stems from the permissive attitudes that emerged from the 1960s. The decay of enforcement that began in the 1960s helped to cause the problems of the succeeding decades... Laws are what protects society from anarchy. And when we choose not to enforce our laws, our laws lose their effectiveness, and the bulwark against anarchy withers."
The Meth Act was just Ashcroft's main attraction this year. Outside the spotlight, he was busy preparing legislation crafted to ensure that no one escapes the drug war dragnet and to punish and punish again those who get caught. For instance:
S. 587: A bill to provide for the mandatory suspension of federal benefits to convicted drug traffickers.
S. 2008: A bill to require the pre-release drug testing of federal prisoners. (This masterpiece of vindictiveness demands that prisoners be tested prior to release and, if their tests are dirty, that the information be turned over to local prosecutors for possible new charges of violating drug or prison contraband laws.)
S. 2517: A bill to amend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 to allow school personnel to apply appropriate discipline measures to all students in cases involving weapons, illegal drugs, and assaults upon teachers. (Just because a kid is crippled doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to get him on drug charges.)
Ashcroft has been riding the meth menace for some time, and has bragged on his campaign web site and on the Senate floor about such victories as the "one strike and you're out" policy for methamphetamine violators living in public housing, securing the death penalty for some methamphetamine offenses, and securing High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) status for his state.
But his concerns with drug policy extend far beyond the borders of the Show-Me state. In 1998, he co-authored measures preventing Washington, DC's needle exchange program from obtaining local funding. In fact, he went further than that. He even attempted to block studies of the efficacy of needle exchange programs, arguing that determining that the programs work "is an intolerable message that it's time to accept drug use as a way of life," according to the Washington Post.
When faced with a contradiction between the bedrock conservative principles of morality and free enterprise, Ashcroft has no problem choosing morality when it comes to illicit drugs. But his moral compass begins to gyrate when it comes to other addictive or abused substances.
He has taken $44,500 dollars from beer companies since 1993, including $20,000 from St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch, and he lauded the beer industry in a video tribute produced by the Beer Institute of America. When Mother Jones magazine took him to task for the contradiction, Ashcroft feebly replied, "It's a product that is in demand. And when it's used responsibly, it's like other products."
He also stuck up for big tobacco, although he hasn't taken any tobacco money since accepting $8,000 for his 1994 Senate race. Oddly, in arguing against the tobacco bill, he suggested that people should be free to make bad choices.
While drug policy reformers generally fear and loathe the prospect of an Ashcroft Department of Justice, early indications are that drug reform organizations will take a back seat to the big liberal powerhouse groups, such as the NAACP and the National Organization for Women, in any campaign to block Ashcroft's nomination.
"We're waiting to see what other groups take the lead," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies.
"I think it will be tough to block this nomination," Tree told DRCNet, "but this is an opportunity for the drug reform movement to strengthen alliances that are beginning to form with civil rights and women's groups. A lot of these groups need to be brought up to speed on the drug war, and Ashcroft provides us with a common cause."
Julie Stewart, founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), told DRCNet that while Ashcroft "is not a friend of sentencing reform," her organization will not be involved in any effort to block his nomination.
"That's not our focus," she said. "We will continue to work on sentencing reform in the Congress, and I don't think he can be stopped anyway."
Stewart said she would urge the Bush administration to engage in "compassionate conservative sentencing reform," as she searched for a silver lining.
"I can't just give up. And I can't stop thinking that, like Nixon going to China, sentencing reform will start with a Republican."