Now it’s Al Gore, crime fighter, outlining his plans in a recent speech in Atlanta. The erstwhile dope smoker from Tennessee fears the erstwhile cocaine user from Texas has the edge on the crime issue. Hence his dash for the low ground. Among the Atlanta pledges: The minute he’s settled into the Oval Office and signed a pardon for the former incumbent, President Gore will be calling for 50,000 more cops (more half-trained recruits like the ones who shot Amadou Diallo) and for allowing off-duty cops to carry concealed weapons (which almost all of them do anyway).
No, it’s unlikely President Gore will endorse medical marijuana, despite his erstwhile post-Vietnam therapy with opium-laced marijuana in the days when he worked for The Tennessean. In the words of his friend John Warnecke (who imported the Thai sticks from the West Coast), Al “smoked as much as anybody I knew down there, and loved it.”
Gore is promising prisoners “a simple deal: before you get out of jail, you have to get clean. And if you want to stay out, then you’d better stay clean.” Not only does he want to test prisoners for drugs while they’re in jail, he wants to test parolees twice a week and return them to jail if they fail. Other features of Al’s war on crime: He wants to put Tommy Hilfiger out of business. How else can we interpret Gore’s call for gang-free zones, banning “gang-related” clothing? What about gang-related music? Hmmm, Tipper tried that last one, and it didn’t work out too well.
Among Gore’s other big plans to combat crime: He wants to target telemarketers who prey on seniors. What about telemarketers who prey on people sitting down to dinner? George W. says he’ll put them on death row. Where are you on that one, Al?
Here we are in a time when a sizable chunk of the population think there are some serious flaws in the justice system. Governor of Illinois George Ryan, a believer in capital punishment, suspends the death penalty in his state because he no longer believes it can be fairly administered. New York and Los Angeles are in an uproar over trigger-happy and corrupt cops. That AP photo of the INS snatch of Eli?n stirs Republicans in the House to start talking about federal goons. Sphinxlike silence from Gore on most of these matters, except of course a tip of his hat to the Miami Cubans. The only difference between him and George W. on the death penalty is that George W. actually laughs when he’s quizzed about state poisoning in the Texas death house outside Huntsville.
As for Al’s favored drug of the early seventies, last year about 700,000 were arrested for marijuana offenses, about 87 percent for possession. That’s more than double the equivalent number for the early nineties. Of the federal prison population of 118,000, about 60 percent are in for drug-law violations, the largest proportion for marijuana. So Al should feel a special kinship with these inmates. Drug offenders constitute about a quarter of the 1.2 million in state prisons and the 600,000 in local jails. Most state drug prisoners are in for heroin- or cocaine-related offenses, so maybe George the coke snorter should save his tiny reserves of compassion for them.
The other day we were at a meeting in Berkeley organized by people who want cities to shift gears on the drug war. One of the other speakers was Ethan Nadelmann of the Lindesmith Center, which pushes for drug-policy reform.
Nadelmann made some good points at the event and later, when we asked him about Gore’s crime proposals. “The idea that when people relapse the punishment should be prison is both antiscientific and fundamentally inhumane,” Nadelmann said. “The whole motto of twelve-step is ‘one step at a time.’ Relapse is part of the recovery process. The notion that people should be reincarcerated based on dirty urine, even when they are getting the rest of their life together, is bad public policy, costly, inefficient and, again, inhumane.”
America is so hooked on prisons that right now, as Nadelmann points out, the easiest way to get treatment for drug addiction is to commit a crime and get yourself arrested. Of course, it’s the worst place to get drug treatment, but finding it outside the criminal justice system is very tough, unless you have plenty of money. Someone should tell Al that the surest place to get drugs is prison, where it’s brought in by the guards, the very folks who are supposed to be supervising punishment and cleanup. Gore won’t have anything to say about that. He’s far too chicken to take on the correctional officers’ associations.
Is there a way out of the insane drug war, which is debauching the Bill of Rights, filling our prisons and failing in all its professed aims (though not its tacit one, of social control)? Nadelmann is thinking along the right lines: “an alternative drug-control regime, based on individual sovereignty-control of your body and what you put into it-plus a public health program. People should not be punished for what they put into their bodies but for the harm they do to others.”
Gore knows all about addiction. His sister Nancy, as he reminds us from time to time, was killed by cigarettes, unable to kick the habit even as she was breathing with one cancerous lung. He also knows about congenital dispositions. His wife, Tipper, is a depressive. He knows about therapy too, having communed with shrinks when he was having the midlife sag that partly prompted his 1992 book Earth in the Balance.
Suppose tobacco someday becomes a criminalized drug. Booze too. Suppose Sister Nancy were still around and got put in prison for manslaughter while driving under the influence of alcohol. How would brother Al feel if she were given more jail time because she couldn’t quit smoking? How would he feel if she were out on parole, then put back in jail because nicotine or alcohol showed up in her blood in a routine test when she applied for a job? How would he like it if someone told Tipper that she should just “snap out of” her depression?
We doubt Al will connect the dots between Nancy’s smoking habit and his stupid anticrime proposals. He’s slow to see connections. After all, he stayed addicted to subsidies for his own tobacco farm and to tobacco-industry cash for seven years after Nancy died, before finally claiming that he’d tested clean.