Politics

Changes of Heart in the Heartland:
Major Editorial Boards Begin to
Criticize the "War on Drugs"

Perhaps the most telling sign this year of change in public opinion regarding drug policy reform was the tide of reform-friendly editorials by major newspaper editorial boards. While many of these editorials addressed single issues, some indicted the entire "war on drugs." Not included are editorials from the Orange County (CA) Register, which in 1999 published more than fifth pro-reform editorials, with titles such as "Drug War Bankruptcy" and "The Futile War on Drugs." Following are excerpts of encouraging, and some surprising, editorials this year.

San Francisco Examiner, October 5, 1999

"A Governor for Drug Legalization"

"What's crazier: Legalizing drugs, or a war on drugs that spends billions of dollars a year in such specious activities as destroying crops in foreign fields and locking up casual users for years in prison?

"New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson thinks he knows the answer.

"Stone cold sober consideration shows that the nation's drug war is wacked out on slogans, hyper-expensive but mostly useless technology, and excessive punishment that does more harm than good. If Johnson starts a dialogue, that's his contribution to restoring sanity."

(Tucson) Arizona Daily Star, October 7, 1999 "Debate Drug Legalization"

"New Mexico's Gov. Gary E. Johnson is now the highest ranking official in the nation to call for legalizing drugs such as marijuana and heroinS. [E]ven those who disagree with him should be admitting that it is time the nation had a full, open discussion on the merits and demerits of drug legalizationS.

"[While this newspaper wants to hear more from the experts before deciding whether to support drug legalization, we are convinced that it is time for a full, open, national debate on drug legalization. By bringing this issue to the front, Johnson has provided an important public service."

(Madison, WI) Capitol Times, October 9, 1999 "Let's Debate This Drug War"

"In many senses, the debate over the United States' ineffective, expensive and destructive drug war is already on. The problem is that someone forgot to tell the politicians and the drug war bureaucrats.

"After Johnson, a conservative Republican, made his common-sense plea for a change in the way this country approaches drug policy, he was savaged by the bureaucrats who make their living by pursuing the drug war

"Only when people begin to talk about drugs and the drug war realistically will they begin to figure out how best to tackle a challenge that has not been met by scare tactics, tougher laws and the exponential bloating of prison populations with people who should be receiving treatment.

"It's time for petty politicians and pettier bureaucrats to respond - not with insults, threats and fear-mongering, but with an acknowledgment of what the people already know: There msut be a better way."

Sacramento Bee, October 29 "Legalize Drugs? Too Many Politicians Addicted to Drug-War Rehtoric"

"New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson said something revolutionary the other day. He called for the legalization of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other illegal drugs.

"[A] conservative Republican governor's willingness to say out loud what so many Americans say privately is welcome. Somewhere between legalization and the cruel, expensive and wrongheaded war on drugs that grips America today lies rational balance. The country needs to start moving toward that balance. If Johnson's pronouncement only serves to bring the growing doubt about the nation's harmful drug strategy into the open, it will serve a useful purpose.

"[AA]n effective strategy would be one that offered likely candidates treatment instead of prison, and that brought not just drug cops into drug-infested communities, but also health care, clean needles and after-school programs. Sadly, most politicians are addicted to drug war rhetoric. Maybe Johnson - who was re-elected in a landslide after admitting his own drug use - can help them and the nation break the drug-war habit."

The preceding editorials followed New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson's whirlwind trip across the country in early October to advocate drug legalization, including a keynote speech at a Coto Institute drug policy conference in Washington, D.C. on October 5 and numerous interviews on network television news programs.

New York Times, March 13 "The Drug War Backfires"

"Almost 70 years after the failure of Prohibition, the much-trumpeted "war on drugs," begun more than a decade ago, has itself hugely misfired.

"School systems deteriorate while tax dollars build enw prisons. Municipal police forces have grown so militarized that drug warrants are served in armored personnel carriers. Young mothers are imprisoned for years for simple drug possession. Young black males in California are now five times as likely to go to prison as to a state university.

"The best hope for controlling illicit drugs lies in treatment. Unfortunately, as new prisons have gone up, treatment programs within them have declined. In their obsession to control drug use by making war on it, Federal and state legislators have turned the world's greatest democracy into its largest prison system, where young adults are warehoused and the opportunity to treat them is wasted."

This editorial was published shortly after the New York Times ran a two-part series on the recent history of drug policy by Timothy Egan on February 28 and March 1.

Chicago Tribune, March 22 "America, Land of Prisons"

"[T]he latest incarceration summary from the Justice Department ought to give pause to everyone who cherishes this land of the free. It reports that, as of last June, there were 1.8 million Americans behind bars, or 4.4 percent more than the previous year. If present trends continue, the U.S. rate of incarceration will surpass Russia's in two or three years, making this nation the world's busiest jailer.

"Violent incorrigibles belong in prison, no question. Yet the fastest-growing segment of the prison population is non-violent drug offenders. These young people are more apt to gain bad habits in jail than to shed them.

"Education, job opportunities, drug treatment - these are the long-term solutions to crime. More prisons are not the answer. We have enough."

This op-ed appeared in response to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, released in March, showing a record number of prisoners in the U.S. Los Angeles Times, December 2 "Cocaine Sentences: Level the Field"

"America's war on drugs has filled federal prisons to bursting. More than 20% of federal inmates are low-level and first-time drug offenders, most with no history of violenceS.

"Modest efforts over the years to eliminate or reduce the [100-to-1 powder-vs-crack cocaine sentencing] disparity by raising the amount of crack that subjects an offender to the harsh, five-year-minimum sentence have failed. Now comes Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) with an absurd proposal: His proposed Powder Cocaine Sentencing Act of 1999 would cut the 100-to-1 disparity to 10-to-1 by reducing the amount of powder cocaine necessary to trigger the mandatory minimum sentence from 500 to 50 grams. The result would be to sweep even more low-level drug offenders into prison, suck in more tax dollars to house them and leave even less money for drug treatment and prevention

"Wiser measures, stalled in the House, would equalize the disparity by raising the amount of crack rather than cutting the amount of powder that triggers the five-year minimum and would give back to judges some of the sentencing discretion they need to make the punishment fit the crime."

Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader, September 12 "Another Bad Strategy in the Drug War"

"As other parts of the nation begin questioning - and rightly so - the 'lock' 'em up and throw away the kilo' approach to fighting the War on Drugs, the Kentucky Criminal Justice Council wants to see more people do more time for trafficking in smaller quantities of marijuana.

"As a state, and a nation, we've hustled thousands of these folks into cells during the last couple of decades. We keep building and filling new prisons, and a lot of it is due to the influx of drug offenders. It hasn't worked, though. We haven't won the War on Drugs, and we won't win it by filling more prison beds with folks who sell 2 ounces of marijuana. "[S]olving the problem [of drug abuse] requires more than finding new ways to imprison non-violent drug offenders. It requires treating the addiction."

This op-ed was a response to the Kentucky Criminal Justice Council's recommendations to make the sale of two ounces of marijuana a felony and to create a state "drug czar's" office.

Salt Lake (City) Tribune, June 25 "Lost War On Drugs"

"Even when a war is being lost and a reasonable leader decides it is time to make peace, there are others who will continue to prosecute it, either because they are too dull to know their cause is doomed or because they are too vain to admit failure. Such is America's war on drugs.

"No one pointed out [at a recent house hearing] the foolishness of spending $18 billion a year to chastise 4.1 million people with little effect. Congress would fare much better - and save taxpayers a lot of money - by bribing each one of these folks with several thousand dollars a year to quit drugs.

"Unlawful searches, abnormal prison sentences and illicit property seizures are tolerated - even endorsed - as necessary for a war the government is no closer to winning than it was 30 years ago.

"The United States never has been engaged in a real war with such disastrous losses. No foreign power has ever been able to divorce American citizens from or limit the individual liberties this nation's founders said were inalienable.

"The drug war has created no victors, but has left a plenitude of losers, not least of whom are the citizenry who have been forced to finance it and have seen their liberties tweaked to the point that their lives and property can be stripped from them at the caprice of any government agency if it invokes the drug war."

This editorial was a response to a June 16 U.S. House subcommittee hearing, titled "The Pros and Cons of Drug Legalization, Decriminalization and Harm Reduction.

Investor's Business Daily, September 21 "Tyranny and the War on Drugs"

"In the name of establishing a drug-free society, overzealous police have too often failed to notice the difference between the innocent and the guilty. As a result, the war on drugs has gone beyond keeping the peace. It's become a threat to liberty.

"By calling the enforcement of drug laws a 'war on drugs,' the government has instilled a military attitude among policeS. Police and deputies dress in combat uniforms, wear masks, carry assault weapons and use explosives when they raid homes. The public now faces the frightening militarization of the police."

This op-ed was, in part, a response to the killing of Mario Paz, a Compton, CA, grandfather who was shot twice in the back by a neighboring El Monte, CA, SWAT team during a drug raid in which no drugs were found.

(Phoenix) Arizona Republic, September 12 "Do Drugs, Do Time?"

"In commenting on the [HHS] study findings, federal drug czar Barry McCaffrey said that it demonstrates that 'the typical drug user is not poor and unemployed. He or she can be a co-worker, a husband or wife, a parent.'

"It's an ironic sentiment coming from McCaffrey, who is the nation's foremost advocate of retaining criminal penalties for drug use. If McCaffrey's policies were perfectly enforced, these co-workers, spouses, and parents wouldn't be gainfully employed. They'd be in jail."

(Newark, NJ) Star-Ledger, September 25 "Misbegotten War"

"It should come as no surprise that we are losing the war on drugs. People continue to use illegal substances. What may be surprising to some is that many abusers are not ne'er-do-wells hanging on the fringes of society.

"Maybe we should turn down the noise on drugs a little so we can hear the facts better."

The preceding two editorials were published in response to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) report, released in early September, which found that 70% of Americans who had used drugs in 1997 held full-time jobs.

Chicago Tribune, August 11 "It's Time To Show DARE The Door"

"Year after year, about 80 percent of the elementary school districts in the country allocate resources and classroom time for a curriculum that simply doesn't work, and few of them seem to care.

"A recent study at the University of Kentucky is only the latest in an impressive body of research showing that D.A.R.E., a popular anti-drug program, does virtually nothing to keep kids off drugs. yet thousands of schools each year put their pupils - some as early as first grade - through it.

"Why don't schools show D.A.R.E. the door? Maybe because it isn't costing them much - funding comes from local sources and from federal grants - and it makes teachers and administrators feel they're doing something to address a very real problem.

"What a waste! There's got to be a better way to educate young people about the hazards of substance abuse, but as long as a high-profile pseudo-solution is available, there's little incentive to find out what might really work."

This editorial appeared in response to a study, "Project DARE: No Effects at 10-Year Follow-Up," published in the August 1999 issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

Washington Post, November 6 "The Wrong Drug Battle"

"Medical use of marijuana cannot be said to lead inevitably to drug legalization or a pro-drug culture. Referendums can be haphazard, but voters are not the only group supporting medical marijuana. Earlier this year the Institute of Medicine concluded that marijuana-derived chemicals can alleviate cancer and AIDS symptoms; it added that these chemicals would be best delivered in a non-smoked formS.

"It is time for the [Clinton] administration to drop its doctrinaire opposition to medical marijuana. It is ineffective and unpopular - both with voters and with some law enforcers. Rather than harass doctors who prescribe marijuana, the administration should reopen the federal program under which, until 1991, marijuana was available to terminally ill patients.

This editorial was in response to a medical marijuana initiative in Maine, approved by voters on November 2.

Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch, October 1 "Reefer Madness" New Drug Policy "Sometimes you have to wonder what congressional Republicans have been smoking.

"When residents of the District of Columbia voted last year regarding a measure to legalize the medical use of marijuana, Congress forbade officials even to count the ballots. A federal judge has intervened, and the results show the initiative passed by a whopping 69 percent. Now some Congressmen . . . are voicing their intention to block implementation of the measure. That's wrong, for two reasons.

"First, growing evidence indicates that marijuana can alleviate some of the suffering endured by persons with certain illnesses.

"Second, it is nothing but imperial arrogance for Congress to overturn a referendum that passed by so broad a margin - especially when that same Congress is controlled by Republicans who speak frequently and at high volume about the virtues of 'devolution' and keeping the federal government from meddling in local mattersS.

"Liberals forever are trying to cast Republicans as heartless, unthinking, ham-fisted Neanderthals. Knee-jerk reaction - on the weakest of grounds - against a measure that could alleviate pain suggests at least some in the GOP are eager to play the role."

This editorial was in response to Initiative 59, the Washington, D.C., medical marijuana referendum approved by 69% of voters in November 1998.

Excerpts from "The Drug Policy Letter" - November/December 1999

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