Clinton '96 Should Stick By Drug Policy of Clinton '92
The president "confuses being tough with being smart." He "thinks locking up addicts instead of treating them before they commit crimes ... is clever politics. That may be, but it certainly isn't sound policy.... A president should speak straight even if what he advocates isn't popular. If he sticks to his guns, the results will prove the wisdom of his policy."
Candidate Bill Clinton was right on target in this 1992 attack against President George Bush.
Now incumbent Clinton is under heated but misguided attack by Bob Dole and congressional allies. If Clinton deserves criticism on drug policy, it is his own: He has confused being tough with being smart and failed to stick to his guns.
The Republicans blame increased drug use on Clinton's early efforts to scale back the overseas drug war budget. But those cuts were well-founded. Government studies had confirmed what outside analysts argued for years: Attempts to interdict drugs overseas and at our borders had failed to affect levels of price and availability in the United States. The more drugs were seized, the more were produced and shipped; for every route cut off, new ones sprang up.
Clinton should have countered his critics with evidence that a Bush-style escalation of the war on supply - Dole's model - would not lower use and abuse. Despite Bush's near doubling of annual drug enforcement budgets from $4.6 to $8 billion dollars, the war on supply failed to meet its key objective: to raise drug prices to bring down consumption. Heroin and cocaine became cheaper and more available. At the height of the Bush drug war, hard-core drug use rose more dramatically than under Clinton.
If Clinton deserves criticism, it is for failing to stand his ground against unworkable policies. To prove his toughness this election year, he urged a $100 million increase in the interdiction budget. He has pursued much the same punitive enforcement strategy as Bush. By 1996 he was asking Congress for $10 billion for domestic and foreign drug enforcement, 25 percent more than Bush's last request.
On Capitol Hill, GOP critics have challenged Clinton's efforts to increase treatment for hard-core drug users. As the campaign heated up this summer, Bush's deputy drug control director, John Walters, testified that increased treatment was "ineffectual policy - the latest manifestation of the liberals' commitment to a 'therapeutic state' in which government serves as the agent of personal rehabilitation."
Again Clinton's initiative was well- founded: Evidence shows that treatment is seven times more cost-effective than law enforcement in curbing cocaine use.
But when congressional Republicans attacked his $355 million hard-core treatment plan in 1993, Clinton failed to throw his full weight behind the initiative. When they opposed his mild efforts to roll back mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession, he backed off. And when the Republican Congress cut treatment and prevention programs in 1995 and 1996, he could have counterattacked, showing how the cuts would push those with drug problems into crime and prisons rather than treatment. Instead, he quietly caved in.
The Republicans also charge Clinton with silence and hypocrisy. He has not used the presidential bully pulpit to condemn drug use. Worse, his initial staff cuts in the drug czar's office, his "didn't inhale" statements, and revelations that White House staffers had used drugs seemed to make light of a deadly serious problem.
The president should speak out and lead. But not rally the country for another escalation of the Reagan-Bush drug war. Not offer simplistic "just say no" messages. And not further stigmatize and demonize those suffering from drug addiction. He needs to reject the drug-war symbolism and speak the truth.
We'll never win a "war" on drugs by chasing the drug supply. Drug problems are not enforcement problems. They are health problems, just as heavy drinking and smoking are.
Drug abusers are not "the enemy." They are our neighbors, friends, and family members who need help in making better choices - ordinary people, sometimes troubled or poor, who deserve care and treatment, not stigmatization and punishment.
Candidate Clinton, in 1992, knew that "emphasizing treatment may not satisfy people fed up with being preyed upon." But when he said he would "speak straight," he knew that earning public support demands telling the truth and backing sound policies.
Would that he had stuck to his guns.
*Eva Bertram, a Washington policy analyst, and Kenneth Sharpe, professor and chair of political science at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa., are coauthors of "Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial" (University of California Press).