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December 7, 2018

"George H.W. Bush’s biggest failure? The war on drugs."

The title of this post is the headline of this Washington Post commentary authored by historian Matthew Pembleton.  Here are excerpts:

And Bush’s complicated legacy does include much good, from his handling of the end of the Cold War to his support for climate science and the Americans With Disabilities Act. But it also includes some bad — specifically, a profound escalation in the War on Drugs. Ronald Reagan may have reoriented public attitudes about drugs when he pronounced in 1982, “Drugs are bad, and we’re going after them . . . And we’re going to win the war on drugs.” But, it was Bush — and later, Bill Clinton — who put real resources into the effort.

When Bush took office, the federal drug control budget was around $5 billion. When he left office in 1993, it was over $12 billion. This was the sharpest escalation in the history of the drug war and it locked the country into a strategy of punishment, deterrence and intolerance. Based on instinct rather than evidence, Bush’s approach did little to alleviate the public health crisis of addiction or halt the flow of drugs to American shores. And we remain trapped within this largely punitive approach today. So while we remember Bush as a “gentle soul,” we should also remember his role in fomenting a drug war that harmed millions of American citizens, particularly in communities of color.

In a tale retold quite a bit over the last few days, one of those citizens was an 18-year-old D.C. resident named Keith Jackson, who was arrested as part of a White House publicity stunt. In September 1989, Bush astonished the American public by brandishing a bag of crack cocaine during a nationally televised address. The drug, a seemingly bemused president remarked, “looked like candy, but it’s turning our cities into battle zones, and it’s murdering our children.”

Rather than address the underlying poverty, despair or thrill-seeking that drives destructive drug use, Bush sought to wipe out the drug menace by punishing everyone involved to the fullest extent of the law and doubling down on policing. The solution, Bush said, was “more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors,” and a $1.5 billion increase in federal police spending, the greatest single increase in the history of drug enforcement.

Jackson, meanwhile, was a hapless pawn in Bush’s theatrics. When the DEA learned that Bush’s people wanted to use crack seized near the White House as a prop for the speech, they lured the local high school student to Lafayette Square, even giving him directions to get him there. An obvious setup, the case was subsequently thrown out by two juries, but Jackson was eventually sentenced to a mandatory 10 years for selling to an undercover agent in the months leading up to his fateful September arrest.

Bush was widely mocked for the incident but remained unrepentant and paid little price. That’s because the fundamental strategy of escalating the War on Drugs enjoyed widespread bipartisan support, including significant buy-in from the black political class.... The instinct to punish drug users, particularly the poor, runs deep in American political thought, and the consensus supporting these tough-on-crime attitudes continued to harden as Bush championed the growing War on Drugs. On the first anniversary of Bush’s speech, Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates told the Senate that casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot.” This wholly punitive approach reached its apotheosis with the 1994 Clinton crime bill and its notorious “three-strikes” provision.

December 7, 2018 at 09:04 AM | Permalink

Comments

Rest In Peace George H.W. Bush!

Posted by: Legal News | Dec 7, 2018 3:16:59 PM

Is anyone aware of a single example where the war on drugs has succeeded, anywhere, over a period of decades?

Posted by: William Jockusch | Dec 7, 2018 9:25:37 PM

"Based on instinct rather than evidence . . ." This is my quarrel with US criminal justice policy.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Jan 15, 2019 9:41:22 AM

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