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August 6, 2007 - Providence Journal (RI)

OpEd: An Opportunity for Edwards to Lead

By Michael D. Cutler

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

BROOKLINE - Sen. John Edwards's chances of passing Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination seem slim and none at the moment. Edwards must get a more compelling plan to lift America and demonstrate leadership, or his campaign is doomed.

Clinton and Obama will not be out-spent, out-organized or out-messaged, unless Edwards seizes voter interest on an issue with the impact of the Iraq War. Re-declaring war on poverty will not pass his competitors, and declaring peace in Iraq is not a distinction.

Edwards's chance for leadership requires his challenge to an older and more destructive war ignored by the front-runners, the war on drugs (killing many times more Americans than terrorism and the Iraq war combined). Drug reform has presidential and popular precedence (consider how Franklin Roosevelt gained popularity by opposing Prohibition), and it's no gamble since Edwards is certain to lose in his current campaign approach.

Reform's adoption in several states (diversion of nonviolent offenders to treatment instead of detention, approval of clean-needle programs, methadone maintenance and medical marijuana) demonstrates mainstream support.

This reform can command attention while distinguishing Edwards from Clinton and Obama. Both war policies are remarkably similar examples of the emperor wearing no clothes, the recognition of which can change the order of the front-runners.

Like the Iraq war, the drug war exemplifies the principle "garbage-in, garbage-out." Because both policies' fundamental predicates are impractical aspirations divorced from reality, the results are counter-productive. Zero-tolerance is nonsense in a world of caffeine and anti-depressants. Supply interdiction of globally available plants defies common sense. Punishment never has restrained addiction.

Prohibition still fails to promote abstinence and always is corrupted by capitalism. The drug war's foundation, conflicting with basic human instincts, dooms it to worsening abuse just as the Iraq war's reliance on force instead of negotiation encourages terrorism. Built on impossible expectations, both wars' collateral damage beggars any temporary illusion of progress.

Edwards should promote drug war reform and link its chaos to the Iraq fiasco, generating a winning conversation for two reasons.

The drug war's failure is obvious to most Americans. Consider all those with a family member at risk of drug abuse, or who is experiencing or has survived abuse. Drug war advocates' claim that reduced punishment for drug offenses would send the "wrong message" to children or addicts. That assertion has no more credibility than that the troop surge would facilitate tribal reconciliation in Iraq. More or better punishment obviously is not the answer to either problem.

Drug war reform, like the Iraq war, requires an admission that the candidate's former war support was wrong. Edwards's courage to admit both wars' mistakes could project a strength contrasting with Clinton's balky evolution on Iraq. Edwards could effectively cross-examine Clinton on her support for incarceration and pre-emptive force in Iraq, given his skill and her record.

Edwards's only risk is Obama's adoption of this issue. Obama could use the drug war's naked racism to powerful advantage. He is unlikely to appreciate this opportunity, however, given his lack of experience in campaigns and government. Still, taking no position (or worse, opposing reform) to protect his poll standing could jeopardize Obama's core support.

Attacking the drug war on the same terms as the Iraq war should be an underdog's dream. The media love this issue, and Edwards's adoption of this "third-rail" issue would have an epic storyline. The front-runners' embrace of the "conventional wisdom" behind chronically bipartisan drug war-making would indefensibly endorse a status quo that tolerates this worsening health and safety problem.

By demonstrating a leader's courage, Edwards can grow his support and undermine his competitors. Or, he can hammer society's chronic tolerance for poverty, until Edwards stands on the convention podium behind the party's nominee.

Note: Michael D. Cutler, who calls himself a caffeine addict, is a Massachusetts lawyer specializing in criminal and mental-health law.

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