Is there any chance that President Bush could pull a
"Nixon goes to China" on drug
policy? Don't laugh. It's possible.
On Monday, when the Supreme Court ruled against
the medical marijuana buyers'
clubs, Justice John Paul Stevens noted that candidate
Bush had supported state
self-determination on medical marijuana use. And last
January, Bush said: "I think
a lot of people are coming to the realization that maybe
long minimum sentences for
first-time users may not be the best way to occupy jail
space and/or heal people
from their disease."
Admittedly, for those who think the war on drugs is
doing more harm than good,
Bush's appointment of John Ashcroft as attorney general
was a disaster. "I want to
escalate the war on drugs," he said shortly after being
appointed. "I want to renew
it. I want to refresh it, relaunch it if you will."
Ditto for John P. Walters, Bush's choice for drug czar.
It's hard to find someone
more bellicose when it comes to the war on drugs.
Walters is enamored of costly
international control efforts, notwithstanding the
absence of evidence indicating that
they have any impact on drug abuse problems in this
country. Forget about science
and public health. He prefers to lock people up.
Ashcroft and Walters are the temperance warriors of today,
intent on punishing
people for the "sin" of using drugs.
But not everyone with influence in the Bush White House
shares that view. GOP
governors who once rode the drug war bandwagon are
beginning to sing a different
song for any number of reasons.
Connecticut Gov. John Rowland has started telling fellow
Republicans that the best
way to bring African Americans into the party is to address
the unfairness of the
criminal justice system. He's now supporting efforts in his
own state to divert drug
offenders into treatment.
Similarly, New York Gov. George Pataki surprised everyone
earlier this year by
calling for significant reform of the draconian Rockefeller
drug laws ( although
Pataki's actual proposal fell far short of his rhetoric ).
Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor who now heads
Department of Health and Human Services, has also changed his
tune. A major
prison builder for most of his gubernatorial tenure,
Thompson said last year that
enough is enough. More recently, Thompson's hand was
apparent in the
appointment of fellow Wisconsinite Scott H. Evertz,
who supports needle
exchange, as the new "AIDS czar."
And then there's New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a
libertarian Republican who's
dared say what few other politicians will say but
many Republicans believe: that our
biggest drug problems have more to do with drug
prohibition than drug use per se.
Johnson was not the first prominent Republican to utter
such sentiments out loud;
former Secretary of State George Shultz has been saying
much the same since
1989, and Tom Campbell, the former California congressman
who ran for U.S.
Senate last year, articulated a similar message.
Ditto for William F. Buckley Jr.,
Milton Friedman and other prominent conservative intellectuals.
The fact is, there's a libertarian streak that runs
deep in the Republican Party that
understands the futility of trying to prohibit what
are essentially global commodities
markets. Many of these libertarians recoil--just as
do many Democrats--at the drug
war's assault on personal freedoms. Look for some of
them to speak their minds.
As for other voices close to Bush:
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told Congress in
January that illicit drug use
is "overwhelmingly a demand problem." At the Republican
National Convention last
summer, Colin Powell, now Bush's secretary of State,
condemned the wholesale
incarceration of "2 million Americans who, while
paying for their crimes, are not
paying taxes, are not there for their children and
are not raising families." Too
many, he noted, are young black men--a large
percentage of whom are in prison on
As for all those thirty-, forty-and fiftysomething
Republicans now filling top White
House slots and senior positions in federal agencies,
can anyone doubt that a fair
share smoked the occasional marijuana joint or broke
a few other drug laws in days
And then there's John J. DiIulio Jr., Bush's "faith czar."
True, in the mid-'90s, he
wrote a book ( with William Bennett and John Walters )
defending the "lock 'em
up" approach to drug crimes and just about everything else.
But DiIulio changed his
tune a few years ago, moved in part by his own
empirical studies of who was being
incarcerated and in part by his own personal
Now DiIulio says that mandatory minimum drug laws need
to be repealed, that
drug-only offenders should be released and that
drug treatment should be available
both behind bars and in the community. One would hope
that this strikes a chord
with Bush. Don't hold your breath, but just maybe
Bush will "go to China" on this