The Election I: Bush and Kerry on Drugs: Past Records and Platform Planks 10/8/04

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As part of a set of articles covering drug policy in the presidential campaign, we here examine the respective records of President George W. Bush and his challenger, Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. While both independent candidate Ralph Nader and Libertarian Party nominee Michael Badnarik have responded to interview requests, we did not bother to seek interviews with either Kerry or Bush because it seemed too unlikely that either would grant one. And since neither the Kerry nor the Bush campaigns responded to DRCNet requests for comment this week, we will have to rely on their platform positions and their records to examine where they stand on drug policy.

When President Bush came to office in January 2001, some drug reformers dared to hope he would be amenable to change, especially given his campaign comments suggesting he would rethink mandatory minimum sentencing and that medical marijuana could perhaps be handled as a states' rights issue. But as president, George W. Bush has reverted to the tough "law and order" politics on which he has based his political career.

With a few exceptions, however, President Bush has not radically deepened the war on drugs, but has instead largely adopted the course of his predecessors, both Republican and Democrat. Instead of adopting broad changes, for better or for worse, the Bush administration has tweaked its drug policy to emphasize what it has identified as the issues of the day.

  • The Drug-Fighting Budget: The Bush administration has presided over modest increases in funding for the federal war on drugs while maintaining the rough 2-to-1 ratio of spending on enforcement over spending on treatment and prevention. (It did, however, attempt to distort this pattern by budgetary legerdemain; in the fiscal year 2004 budget it removed the costs of incarcerating federal drug prisoners from the mix, giving the misleading impression that treatment and prevention had increased as a proportion of the federal anti-drug budget.)
  • The War on Medical Marijuana: Under Attorney General John Ashcroft and drug czar John Walters, the Bush administration has fought a desperate rearguard action against medical marijuana users and providers in the states where it is legal. While the Clinton administration also opposed medical marijuana, it was only under President Bush that the Justice Dept. unleashed the full weight of criminal law against the medical marijuana movement.
  • Holding the Line Against Hemp: Under Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spent three years and untold taxpayer dollars in a vicious, ridiculous, and ultimately failed effort to block the sale and use of hemp-based food products.
  • Attempting to Block Drug Reform in Other Countries: The Bush administration has been particularly shrill in its efforts to stop other countries from liberalizing their drug laws. It has growled threateningly at Jamaica as that island nation considered marijuana decriminalization, but most brazenly, it has threatened long-time ally and close neighbor Canada with all sorts of dreadful consequences (mostly relating to trade interruptions) if the Canadians have the temerity to adopt a decriminalization scheme similar to that already in effect in many US states.
  • Escalating the Latin American Drug War: Under the Bush administration, the Clinton-era drug war in Colombia has merged seamlessly into the "war on terror." As US taxpayer dollars continue to flow into the Colombian morass, the administration is currently seeking to increase the congressionally-imposed ceilings on US troop and mercenary levels. But while the administration has been rigid in demanding coca eradication as the centerpiece of its Latin American drug policy, even spraying vast stretches of Colombia with herbicides, it has also recently begun to show the faintest hints of flexibility, not in Colombia, but in Bolivia. In the face of instability there, generated at least in part by the US-imposed "zero coca" option, the State Department last year increased alternative development funding and last week did not scream when the Bolivian government signed an agreement with Chapare coca growers to allow limited coca production this year.
  • Student Drug Testing: In his State of the Union speech in January, President Bush announced a new $25 million initiative to encourage school districts to embark on student drug testing programs. Such programs have been found to be ineffective in reducing student drug use. Bush administration lawyers have also forcefully defended testing students before the Supreme Court and have suggested that recent court rulings mean that random suspicionless testing of any student may be legal.
  • Maintaining Harsh Prison Sentences for Drug Offenders: While the Bush administration has, as a rule, not pushed for harsh, new anti-drug legislation, as occurred in the anti-drug frenzy of the 1980s, Attorney General Ashcroft has directed an administrative and legislative offensive designed to reduce vestigial judicial discretion in sentencing even further and to ensure that judges never depart downward from statutory mandatory minimum sentences.
  • Compassionate Conservatism: In addition to touting his school drug testing initiative, Bush's campaign highlights as part of his "compassion agenda" the Access to Recovery program, a three-year $600 million drug treatment initiative designed to "give recovering addicts expanded access to a full range of faith-based and community providers." He mentions a three-year, $150 million initiative to provide 100,000 mentors from faith-based and community organizations to mentor the children of prisoners. The Bush campaign also calls HIV/AIDS an "urgent problem," notes that Bush has increased domestic AIDS funding to $17.1 billion, and vows to continue to fight the disease, but opposes liberalizing federal needle exchange policy.
Of possibly greater significance is Bush's support for the bipartisan movement to expand efforts to assist prisoners with the process of reentry to society. Within this context, as well as within the pending reauthorizations of the Higher Education Act (HEA) and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the administration favors a partial reform to the HEA's anti drug provision to limit its applicability to those students who were in school and receiving federal financial aid at the time of their drug offenses.

Neither the Bush campaign ( nor the Republican Party platform ( have much to say about drug policy, or even criminal justice policy, for that matter. While the Bush campaign sounds a bit soft and fuzzy, with its talk of treatment and compassion, the party platform is hard-edged. After citing the administration's "progress" in reducing teen drug use, the platform warns that to continue this progress, "We must ensure that jail time is used as an effective deterrent to drug use and support the continued funding of grants to assist schools in drug testing."

The Bush administration has an actual record in office, while challenger John Kerry's performance must be assessed by examining what he has done in the past. California NORML head Dale Gieringer examined Kerry's voting record in the Senate and found it decidedly mixed:

  • Kerry was part of the congressional mob that in the mid-1980s fell all over itself to pass one draconian anti-drug bill after another. For instance, he supported the Omnibus Drug Bill of 1986, championed by Massachusetts Democrat House Speaker Tip O'Neill, which created the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparities that have seen the federal prisons filled with dark-skinned drug offenders. To be fair, only two senators voted against that bill.
  • Mandatory Minimum Sentencing: In later votes, Kerry voted against mandatory minimums for selling drugs to minors, for the use of firearms in drug crimes, and for the use of firearms in state drug crimes.
  • The Death Penalty: As a senator, John Kerry consistently voted against measures to expand the death penalty to drug crimes, a reflection of his broader stance against the death penalty.
  • Drug Testing: Senator Kerry was one of only seven senators to oppose random drug testing of transportation workers. He also voted against a successful bill by then-Senator John Ashcroft to require random drug testing of job training participants, and another proposal to require drug testing of welfare recipients. (He did, however, vote to deny welfare benefits for life to anyone convicted of a drug crime, even simple possession.) But Kerry also voted for a one-year demonstration program requiring drug testing for drivers license applicants and for a measure that would require Veterans Affairs employees to be subject to random drug testing.
  • Money Laundering: Former prosecutor Kerry has been very active in promoting legislation against money laundering, arguing that "damping drug traffickers' financial lifeline could be a successful tactic."
  • The Latin American Drug War: Kerry has been a staunch supporter of the drug war in Latin America. He sided with the Reagan administration in pushing for decertification of Latin American countries that the US determined were not doing their share in the drug war. He was also among a handful of Democrats who voted to authorize the shooting down of suspected drug smuggling aircraft, a policy that resulted in the deaths of American missionary Ronnie Bowers and her infant child in 2001. And he has been a strong, consistent backer of the US drug war in Colombia. One of the architects of the Clinton-era Plan Colombia, Rand Beers, is currently a key Kerry foreign policy advisor.
  • Medical Marijuana: Kerry last year signed a letter with fellow Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy asking the DEA to approve the necessary licenses requested by the University of Massachusetts to perform medical marijuana research. While campaigning for the Democratic nomination in New Hampshire in January, Kerry said he would keep medical marijuana illegal until research to complete the FDA approval process was completed, but would not pursue medical marijuana prosecutions in states that have passed medical marijuana laws in the meantime.
  • The Higher Education Act's Anti-Drug Provision: Also in New Hampshire, Kerry said he supports "partial repeal" of the provision. Students should not lose aid for simple drug use, he said. "But if the offense is selling, no."
While the Democratic Party platform ( mentions neither drugs nor crime, the Kerry campaign ( does, and it plays up his "tough on crime" credentials, promising more police and more drug war -- all part of the "stronger America" meme rampant in both campaigns. "John Kerry and John Edwards will aggressively target drug traffickers and dealers and provide funding for coordinated regional efforts aimed at cracking down on drug trafficking," the campaign proclaims. "They will also adequately fund drug prevention and treatment, including innovative approaches to requiring treatment for offenders like drug courts." Despite hints from the campaign trail that Kerry might be amenable to looking at mandatory minimums or more kindly disposed toward medical marijuana, there is no mention of either topic in either the Democratic platform or the Kerry campaign.

In the movie "Traffic," the drug czar character played by actor Michael Douglas begged loudly for someone in charge of drug policy to "think outside the box." It appears there is no danger of that happening with either of these candidates.

-- END --
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Issue #357, 10/8/04 Editorial: A Tragedy in the Capital | Medical Marijuana Activists Besiege HHS, Demand Rescheduling | Drug Policy and the Presidential Election -- Introduction | The Election I: Bush and Kerry on Drugs: Past Records and Platform Planks | The Election II: Drug Reformers on Kerry and Bush, Nader and Badnarik | The Election III: DRCNet Interview: Independent Presidential Candidate Ralph Nader | The Election IV: DRCNet Interview: Michael Badnarik, Libertarian Party Presidential Candidate (repeat) | Newsbrief: Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Critical Federal Sentencing Cases | Newsbrief: Needle Exchange Bill Passes New Jersey Assembly | Newsbrief: Protests Rise over Award as Thai Prime Minister Prepares for New Round of Drug War | Newsbrief: Bolivia's Chapare Cocaleros Sign Historic Agreement with Government | Newsbrief: DEA Pulls Prescription Pain Medicine FAQs Without Explanation | Newsbrief: Hemp Crops in Western Australia Stymied By Licensing Requirements | Newsbrief: Atlanta Cops Use Forfeited Funds to Buy Bigger Guns | Newsbrief: No Asset Forfeiture for Misdemeanor Drug Charges, Tennessee Says | Newsbrief: Texas DA Says Doctors Must Turn In Drug-Using Pregnant Women | Newsbrief: Another Killer Cop Walks Free | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | This Week in History | Administrative Assistant: Part-Time Job Opportunity at DRCNet | The Reformer's Calendar

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