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February 12, 2006 - Newsday (NY)

War On Drugs - Is It Really 'Right'?

By Ellis Henican

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

What's so conservative about the war on drugs?

Spending billions in taxpayer dollars with no clear progress? Inserting government agents into Americans' private lives? Holding a million men and women in prison for what are mostly nonviolent crimes?

Please, how does any of that promote the values that principled conservatives hold dear?

None of it does, of course.

But now, seemingly all of a sudden, people on the left aren't the only ones expressing doubts about America's war on (some) drugs. Some of America's most energized conservatives - activists and intellectuals on the right - are openly asking, "Isn't there a better way to deal with drug abuse than the old lock-'em-up-forever approach?"

At week's end, thousands of conservative activists gathered in Washington for the annual CPAC, the massive Conservative Police Action Conference, half pep rally and half conservative family reunion. The attendees were regaled with the usual conservative litany - warnings about illegal immigration, attacks on the liberal media, throaty calls for a muscular war on terrorism. Dick Cheney and Karl Rove revved up the crowd.

"Conservatism is the dominant political creed in America," Rove declared approvingly.

But this power group of fired-up conservatives also heard something else, a message that seemed to come as a surprise to some in the sprawling meeting room: pointed and serious questions about America's 35-year campaign to rid the nation of heroin, cocaine, marijuana and other illegal drugs.

Who'd have expected this at a CPAC meeting? Extended comments from the podium by Ethan Nadelman, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a man who has been called the invisible hand of drug reform in America. A former Princeton University professor, Nadelman has guided the national fight for medical marijuana and been a key player in the battle to ease the draconian Rockefeller-era drug laws in New York.

Actually, Nadelman told the group, there is some real historical precedent for conservative skepticism toward harsh drug laws. "Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley are probably the two most distinguished conservative thinkers of the second half of the Twentieth Century," he said. "Both of them made clear that they considered the drug laws absurd and antithetical to conservative values."

What do conservatives stand for, he asked rhetorically.

Individual freedom. Fiscal restraint. Holding adults responsible for their own personal decisions. Not expecting government to become a 24-hour-a-day nanny. "Isn't that what conservatism is all about?" Nadelman asked.

So why is government deciding what American adults snort, smoke and swallow - and enforcing those laws with the threat of decades behind bars?

Some old-guard conservatives are aghast that this discussion has gone so far. Some critics complained that Nadelman's group got some of its funding from international financier George Soros, an ardent opponent of George W. Bush.

And Nadelman's planned debate opponent refused at the last moment to go on. Calvina Fay of the Drug Free America Foundation complained that the debate moderator also supported drug-law reform.

The event, billed "A Conservative Drug Policy? A Mini Debate on the War on Drugs," went on anyway, with drug-war defender Gary Cobb substituting for Fay.

"There is a growing split," Nadelman said after he'd finished his presentation to the conservatives.

As on many issues, social conservatives and libertarian conservatives see the drug question quite differently. But Nadelman said he notices more openness among younger conservatives who've started growing weary of the just-say-no and lock-'em-up-forever approaches to drug abuse.

These younger conservatives are more open to drug treatment instead of prison and to the "harm reduction" movement that seeks to replace anti-drug preaching with practical steps that actually save lives.

"Just the fact that we're discussing this in such a setting," Nadelman said. "It's really exciting."

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