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Bill, Newt, and the Coming Battle Over the War

By Adam Smith, Associate Director of Drug Reform Coordination Network

In dueling radio addresses in February, President Clinton outlined, and Newt Gingrich trashed, the administration's 1998 National Drug Strategy report. While bickering around the edges of the nation's plans for the prosecution of the Drug War has become a common occurrence, Gingrich's demand that the Strategy by withdrawn, and his promise of a legislative package constituting "the largest, most dynamic, most comprehensive anti-drug strategy ever designed," has taken the battle over the war to a new level.

With mid-term elections coming, and the economy strong, the GOP is desperate to find wedge issues. Clinton's record on drugs, from "I didn't inhale" to a reported 70% increase in teen drug use on his administration's watch, make this a perceived Democratic weakness. Also, with popular Republican mayors around the country (Gingrich mentioned New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani in his address) talking and acting the part of near-obsessive drug warriors, there is evidence that the GOP feels that the issue is ripe for exploitation.

The problem for the Democrats is, of course, that in a perverse way, Gingrich is right. The current carnage which has made the US the world's leading incarcerator, which has resulted in one out of three young African American men caught up in the criminal justice system, which has led to massive corruption, ineffective drug education and rising numbers of young drug users, has been a colossal failure. It will be difficult, if not impossible to argue in favor of more of the same, which is exactly what the administration is proposing. The fact that escalation is not the answer is nearly irrelevant, as voters, still largely uninformed as to the real nature of the problem, will be presented with an "alternative" to the failed status quo.

The Democrats' other option would be radical indeed. That would be to argue reason and truth. Prohibition cannot work, its very premise is fatally flawed, and we need to reassess our entire thinking about what constitutes "drug control," which we have quite obviously failed to achieve under a state of war. But desperate though they may be, few Democrats will be so bold as to level with the American people in the face of the cumulative effects of the propaganda campaign which has been successfully waged on this issue over the past 25 years.

No, the Democrats will be stuck with two choices. The first is to abandon the administration and jump on the escalation bandwagon. The second is to rely on calls for treatment in prisons and a host of other "half-measures," as Gingrich calls them. The fact that these half-measures constitute a position halfway toward a police state makes little difference. The GOP is apparently ready to open the throttle, full speed ahead, and bet that the American public is ready and willing to ignore the advice of Thomas Jefferson in trading freedom for security, illusory as that promised security may be.

But despite the seemingly depressing prospect of a public debate between those lobbying for more prisons and less freedom and those lobbying for even more prisons and even less freedom, there is reason for optimism. Today, across the globe, from Europe to Australia and even in Canada, a backlash has arisen against American-style war as an antidote to substance abuse. The European Parliament recently delayed a vote, expected to be closely contested, over a report recommending that all EU members adopt harm-reduction strategies, including the decriminalization of cannabis and other "soft" drugs. England has been awash in debate over cannabis policy for months now, and the din has only intensified.

Heroin maintenance trials are being discussed and even implemented across the continent, and Australia was days away from starting its own when it bowed to back-channel US pressure. Canada is also becoming a hot-spot of debate over drug policy, and let us not forget that we share a virtually indefensible border with our neighbor to the north.

Interestingly, one of the strongest and most resonant arguments being made by international reformers is the excess of punitive control and government power that the war has brought to America. As the numbers of reformers across Europe and other nations come tantalizingly close to parity with those advocating war, what would be better illustrative of the philosophical endpoint of prohibition than American politicians calling in the media for even more massive incarceration and more executions (generally abhorred by other western democracies) in "the land of the free"? A campaign, legislative and electoral, featuring such wanton bloodlust in the name of "morality" could very well seal the fate of Prohibitionists around the world. A victorious Republican campaign, resulting in such an expansion of the punitive state, almost certainly would.

Here at home, some of the media has begun to report approvingly of both harm reduction and the voices of reform. Discussion of alternatives is no longer taboo in polite company. The challenge for reformers, then, is to thrust ourselves into the coming debate, offering rational alternatives to both the failures of the current system and the murderous excesses of the extremist dissenters.

We must edge our way onto the stage, in any way possible, and at every opportunity, with a clear and honest message which takes into account the very real fears to which escalation is designed to appeal. "Prohibition is not drug control, it is the abandonment of control." Further, we must build up our numbers by reaching out to those who understand, and educating those who do not. We must marshal our forces and grow our organizations. We must speak out, and we must demand that others stand up and be counted. We must make the warriors defend their chosen course.

On Saturday, February 14, 1998, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich announced his intention to lead a full scale offensive in the longest-running war of the twentieth century. It is vital that we as reformers not waste our limited resources in trying to fight the Republicans around the edges of their plan. Let them go wild. Let them be extreme. It can only help our cause both here and abroad. Instead, let us stake out our ground in opposition to both "sides." Let us step into the fray with our message intact. The unreasonableness of our adversaries is our greatest advantage. We must use the spotlight which they themselves have asked for to illuminate our cause. They have called forth the battle. But in so doing, they have given us the war. Our time is upon us.

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