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President Clinton Ignores Advice of His Own Drug Policy Experts

By Tom Murlowski, Associate Director of the November Coalition

On Thursday, January 8, 1998 a press conference took place from CASA (The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University). Attending were General Barry McCaffrey, CASA Director Joseph Califano, Charles J. Hynes, District Attorney of Brooklyn, New York, and Charles Colson. The occasion was the release of an official CASA report; the culmination of an intensive three-year study on the nature of the U.S. prison population. They stated a commitment to a different approach to drug policy in this country. It was called "The Second Front in the War on Crime."

They did everything but admit that the Drug War has been a complete failure.

(The war on drugs) "is a failed social policy."

"Over 4 million of us are substance addicted."

"... over 250,000 people in the prison system simply don't belong there. That's the size of the U.S. Air Force." - Gen. Barry McCaffery

"Prisons are monuments to failure." - Joseph Hynes

The press conference even included a call to reform the criminal justice system.

"In America, we have had many revolutions; in communications, computers... We need a complete revolution in our criminal justice system." - Joseph Califano

Mr. Califano, General McCaffery, and Charles Colson and Mr. Hynes all expressed their complete dismay at the sheer waste of mandatory sentencing policies.

"I could not conceive of a more ill advised strategy than mandatory sentencing." - Charles Colson

Mr. Colson went on to state that mandatory sentences are the most counterproductive policy possible, and that violent criminals are being released in order to jail nonviolent people on mandatory sentences. He also said that drugs were just as available in prisons as on the street.

"Mandatory sentences endanger rather than protect the public safety." "The only mandatory sentence should be mandatory treatment."

"Mandatory sentencing laws make no sense." "Mandatory sentence laws are really a round-trip ticket back into jail and a life of crime."

"We are still looking at this population as if they were Bonnie and Clyde, or major drug lords, . .. our prisons are wall to wall with drug addicts and alcoholics. We need a fundamental change in the way we look at them." -Joseph Califano

They talked about the over 2.5 million children of the drug war prisoners, being deprived of one or both parents. They reported the tremendous cost of locking all these people up, both in direct dollars and lost productivity. The dialog continued-drug abuse is an illness, not a crime, inmates are human beings, who just need a helping hand. Charts and facts and figures showed emphatically and repeatedly that present drug policies JUST DON'T WORK!!! Present policy is a complete waste of taxpayers money. Treatment is 300% more cost effective and 1000% more efficient at dealing with recidivism than incarceration. Califano said that a significant fraction of the federal prison population should be removed from other violent and incorrigible prisoners, effectively treated, and returned to society.

Mr. Califano consistently DID NOT break out the difference between illegal drugs and alcohol in most of the charts. He went on to state:"We didn't understand it until we did this study, but the number one drug implicated in violent crime in America is alcohol."

"Contrary to conventional wisdom and popular myth, alcohol is more tightly linked with more violent crime than crack, cocaine, heroin, or any other illegal drug."

The study showed that alcohol alone was seven times more responsible for violent crime than all illegal drugs combined. Marijuana was not even on the charts.

These men aren't activists or radicals; rather they are the men that dictate drug policy in America. They claim to have the full support of the Clinton administration, and Attorney General Janet Reno and bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. This hopefully represented a 180-degree shift in political consciousness.

The November Coalition e-mail list bristled with excitement! Posts went out at lightening speed. We are not harboring any illusions, however. Our loved ones are not getting out of jail tomorrow. Legislation needs to be introduced, and fought for, and we have to work diligently to insure that current prisoners of the drug war are not forgotten. We have to push for full retroactivity, and amnesty. All of us have to keep up the fight. No man, woman or child can be left behind as we shamefully allowed to happen in the Vietnam War.

The CASA report was a victory-or so we thought.

The following Monday after the release of this report, President Clinton gave a press conference. He chose to blatantly ignore the most important aspects of this report, issued by his own drug policy experts. Instead he spouted more of the usual mean-spirited and ultimately empty rhetoric; i.e. tougher laws, more jail time, more tax dollars wasted, etc. He sounded uncannily like Newt Gingrich. Some quotes:

"We've sought to be tough and smart, to punish criminals and to prevent crime."

"...but we're a long way from my vision of a drug-free America. Fighting drugs in our prisons and among prisoners is absolutely critical ultimately to keeping drugs off the streets and away from our children."

"To inmates we say, if you stay on drugs, then you'll have to stay in jail. To parolees we say, if you want to keep your freedom, you have to stay free of drugs."

"If we can simply break the chain between drug use and criminal activity for people who are under criminal supervision, in prison or on parole-if we could just do that-we can go a very long way toward making our streets and our neighborhoods safe for our children again."

President Clinton has committed $197 million to institute mandatory drug testing for all prisoners and parolees, $85 million for a drug intervention program called Break the Cycle, $30 million to increase the drug court programs, and $72 million in residential block grants to insure that the states fall in line with the federal agenda. That's over a third of a billion dollars flushed down the endless black hole of the criminal justice approach, completely wasted on what should be a public health issue.

Politics as usual I'm afraid. The same old 'get tough' party line. No mention at all of alcohol, more associated with violent crime than all illegal drugs combined.

Yeah, let's fill up our jails some more, Bill; that'll fix everything. Let's continue to throw money at the problem, without any rational planning, until it just goes away on it's own. I've got news for him: there has never in all of recorded history been a drug-free society, and there never will be. Everybody but the politicians seem to be aware of this fact. And how exactly are we protecting our children by turning our nation into a police state, and locking up hundreds of thousands of their parents; could you run us through that part again, please, Mr. President?

This fight is far from over, but we still scored big points with the release of that study. We need to redouble our efforts in 1998, and bring our loved ones home.

PostScript: Recent developments would indicate that Mr. Clinton may have his hands full just trying to stay in office. The Presidential trousers seem to have an annoying habit of falling down at the most inopportune times. Could you preach some more morality to us, Mr. President? We can never get enough of your sincerity and compassion. I pray that one day soon, the People will grow weary of the seemingly limitless self-serving greed and corruption that permeates American politics right through to it's ugly core.

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