John Ashcroft's Drug War 2/16/01

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One of the people who has stood in the way of drug policy and sentencing reform is the new Attorney General, John Ashcroft. As a Senator, Ashcroft was one of the most enthusiastic proponents of harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low level, nonviolent drug offenders.

While the new president himself has actually voiced the need to reconsider certain drug war excesses such as lengthy mandatory minimums for first time possessors and the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, John Ashcroft has advocated an escalation of the drug war that if enacted could launch the nation's incarcerated population even further above the two million mark than it stands at already.

In an interview given to Larry King Live on February 7th, Ashcroft stated, "I want to escalate the war on drugs. I want to renew it... refresh it, re-launch it..." Pressed by King for specifics, however, the Attorney General declined to provide them, other than a "Parent Drug Corps" idea proposed by the new administration.

When asked by King if the drug war was a failure, Ashcroft seemed to be stuck in the 1990s, oddly citing early Clinton-era events as an explanation for subsequent increases in teenage drug use. For example, Ashcroft pointed out that the Clinton administration reduced the staff size of the drug czar's office from 140 to a little over 20 in 1993, implying that that represented a backing off in the drug war that was responsible for the drug war's subsequent eight years of failure. Ashcroft also cited candidate Clinton's famous "didn't inhale" remark from the '92 campaign, and Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders' remarks on the drug legalization issue as factors.

The Attorney General failed to mention, however, that ONDCP staffing was increased to 150 almost five years ago, nor did the small-government Republican explain why he believes that downsizing a Washington-DC bureaucracy would encourage young people in all corners of our vast nation to use drugs.

Most seriously, Ashcroft failed to acknowledge that the overall federal anti-drug budget increased by more than 60% under Clinton, from $11.9 billion in 1992 to $19.2 billion (requested) for 2001; nor did he mention the near doubling of the US incarcerated population and the record level drug arrest rates, 700,000 annually for marijuana alone.

The Attorney General also seems to have made some numbers up entirely. According to Ashcroft, past 30-day usage of marijuana by high school seniors "increased by 700% between '92 and '97."

Drug use statistics are notoriously unreliable, due to the self-reporting nature of the surveys and their consequent vulnerability to the prevailing social and rhetorical climate: An apparent rise or drop in teen drug use may reflect changes in the willingness of young people to confess to illegal drug use on a government survey, even if filled out anonymously.

Still, the usual source for such estimates is the annual Monitoring the Future survey, conducted at the University of Michigan under contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse. According to Monitoring the Future data (available at on the web), the percentage of high school seniors reporting having used marijuana within the previous 30 days increased from 11.9% in 1992 to 23.7% in 1997 -- a 99% increase in the percentage -- or, more meaningfully, an additional 11.8% of youth -- significant, if one chooses to believe the self-reported results, but nothing to justify Ashcroft's 700% figure.

Ashcroft also claimed that "the number of high school seniors who have tried drugs is at its highest level in over a decade." An examination of Monitoring the Future again paints a different picture. According to MTF, reported lifetime prevalence of past drug use by high school seniors is higher than during the early 1990s, but was lower in 2000 than during 1997, 1998 or 1999, though not significantly so (54.0%, vs. 54.3%, 54.1% or 54.7%).

Ashcroft's one specific proposal on drug policy fell under the guise of an anti-gun violence initiative. Ashcroft has proposed that the state of Virginia's "Exile" program be adopted as a national model for reducing gun violence. Exile was the brainchild of the National Rifle Association, but was also endorsed by an organization on the "other side" of the gun debate, Handgun Control, Inc., according to the state's Exile web site (

An examination of Exile, however, shows that the mandatory minimum penalties and bail denials mandated under its provisions often have less to do with gun violence than with drugs. For example, a defendant who is caught possessing any quantity of a drug such as cocaine or heroin is automatically subject to a five year mandatory minimum sentence, no parole, if he or she also was in possession of a gun -- even if the gun was legally owned, registered and safely stored. The only exception made is for marijuana, for which a pound or more is required to invoke the mandatory minimum.

No one is known to have been selected for the Office of National Drug Control Policy ("drug czar") position as of this writing. This apparent de-emphasis of that office -- again, conflicting with Ashcroft's rhetoric about the importance of the office -- suggests that Attorney General Ashcroft may turn out to be the leading drug warrior of the Bush administration.

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Issue #173, 2/16/01 Incarceration Fever About to Break? Prison Populations Leveling Off in Some Big States | California's "Three Strikes" Law Continues to Snare Mainly Drug and Nonviolent Offenders | John Ashcroft's Drug War | Oklahoma Meth Mess | One Third of Indigenous Prisoners in Mexico Imprisoned on Drug Charges | New Site Uses Traffic Movie to Raise Awareness, Free Daily DVD or Video Give-Away for Participants | Book Review: The Politics of Medical Marijuana | Errata: Ecstasy Conference, Calendar | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: A Postcard from Mexico
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