The passage of major reforms in the Rockefeller drug laws last week – the notorious 1973 mandatory sentencing laws that filled New York’s prisons but have not prevented long-term growing drug-related problems – demonstrates the challenge the United States faces in getting out of the drug war trap.
Nelson Rockefeller served as governor of New York from 1959 to 1973. He spent millions in attempts to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1960, 1964, and 1968 and became Vice President in 1974. Rockefeller was known as a liberal Republican in a party led by people like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon.
The Rockefeller drug laws – the toughest drug laws in the United States – allowed him to be a tough on drugs politician and respond to Nixon’s call for a “war on drugs.” The mandatory minimum sentences, which covered all illegal drugs from marijuana to heroin, treated possession of over 56 grams as the equivalent of second degree murder.
There are nearly 12,000 people in New York’s prisons incarcerated under the drug laws, most of them minor offenders with no history of violent behavior. It costs New York $520 million a year to imprison them. Almost 90% of those locked up in New York for drug offenses are African American or Latino, despite research showing that the vast majority of people who use and sell drugs are white.
Over thirty-five years the laws cost the state billions of dollars and ruined tens of thousands of lives. And, throughout the time New York saw one drug crisis after another – the cocaine-crack era, multi-generational heroin addiction, a wave of HIV/AIDS-related to drug use, drug-trafficking related crime waves and consistent high levels of overdose deaths. The Rockefeller drug laws were a costly failure but it took decades to even make modest reforms.
Indeed, full repeal of the laws is still opposed, especially by upstate legislators who profit from the prison-industrial complex. The reforms enacted still leave mandatory sentences on the books, but give judges discretion in some cases to require treatment instead of incarceration. Only 1,800 people will be affected by the change because of compromises between the New York State Senate and House.
Rockefeller recalls another drug war Republican – Richard Nixon who set the modern drug war trap. When he was president the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse recommended an alternative path: treat hard drugs as a public health issue and do not treat possession, personal cultivation and non-profit transfer of marijuana as crimes. White House tapes reveal Nixon reacting negatively to the suggestions based on racism, anti-Semitism and hatred for the educated (Nixon to Bob Haldeman: “. . .every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob, what is the matter with them? I suppose it’s because most of them are psychiatrists . . .”)
In response to the unanimous recommendations, Nixon upped the drug war ante, with a special focus on marijuana. Marijuana arrests increased by 100,000 the year after the Commission recommended such offenses not be a crime. And, now, the FBI reports that in 2007 there were 872,720 marijuana arrests – more than for rape, robbery and murder combined – and 90% of those are for mere possession. This for a substance that nearly half the country believes should be legal.
How is their any legitimacy in a law that is so widely opposed resulting in hundreds of thousands of arrests annually? No wonder the United States has the embarrassment of incarcerating 25% of the world’s prisoners while having only 5% of the world’s population.
An interesting parallel with the American experience is the experience of another country that in the same year had a national commission report which made very similar recommendations. The difference, at the outset, unlike Nixon their leaders put in place the recommendations of the commission. Today, the Netherlands has one half the marijuana use rate per capita, one-third the heroin use and one-quarter the cocaine use. In addition, their prison population is one-seventh that of the United States.
The facts are on the side of those who advocate ending the drug war but breaking free of this failed policy has been extremely challenging. Democrats, who many hope would be the alternative to the Just Say No Republican Party, have consistently been afraid to tackle the issue. President Clinton out flanked the Republicans by putting a general in charge of drug policy.
President Obama, who supported decriminalization while in the Illinois State Senate, mocked a question about ending the marijuana war at a recent web-town hall meeting. Obama fielded the most popular questions sent to the White House website where 3.5 million people voted. Marijuana legalization was No. 1 on the list. Obama said:
“I have to say that there was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high, and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation… I don’t know what that says about the online audience…We want to make sure that it was answered. The answer is, no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.”
Jack Cole, the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group representing thousands of former law enforcement officers opposed to the drug war, said: “Despite the president’s flippant comments today, the grievous harms of marijuana prohibition are no laughing matter. It would be an enormous economic stimulus if we stopped wasting so much money arresting and locking people up for non-violent drug offenses and instead brought in new tax revenue from legal sales, just as we did when we ended alcohol prohibition 75 years ago during the Great Depression.”
Obama picked as vice president, Joe Biden, who as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee put in place mandatory minimum sentences, the harsh disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing and the drug czar’s office among other drug war measures. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, also favors a tough on drugs approach. However, the president did announce he is stopping the waste of federal resources on medical marijuana prosecutions and supports needle exchange to prevent HIV/AIDS. In addition, he has appointed the police chief of Seattle, a city that has put in significant drug policy reforms, as his drug czar.
And, President Obama is facing an aggressive drug war in Mexico where more than 7,000 have been killed in the last 18 months. This would be a good opportunity for the president to point out how violence is one of the side effects of prohibiting drugs. Many cities in the U.S. have seen more prohibition-related violence then Chicago saw during alcohol prohibition. But, instead Obama is mocking the issue and calling out National Guard troops.
Militarization of the drug war on the Mexican border is something that previous presidents have tried and it has always backfired. President Nixon put in place Operation Intercept, searching one out of three cars and trucks crossing the border. The result, marijuana and heroin traffickers switched to air, sea and commerce causing a heroin and marijuana glut. President Reagan used the military to intercept boats and planes bringing marijuana into the United States. The result, traffickers switched to the more profitable and easier to smuggle cocaine causing the cocaine decade of the 1980s. President Clinton used the Marines on the border until they shot and killed a high school student in his backyard while he was herding goats for the town’s cheese co-operative.
What disaster will Obama bring by failing to confront the root cause questions: should drug prohibition continue, does the drug war work, are its costs greater than its benefits and is there a better way forward?
KEVIN ZEESE can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org