MJNN Exclusive: Bush’s Drug War At 25, Part II

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two of a four part series that Mr. Hirschburg has written for MJ News Network, as part of our Cannabis Elections 2014 coverage.

By Bailey Hirschburg

Part II: “…crack is worse than taxes… “Fortunately for the president, the drug war was a top priority for Congress. The Byrne Justice Grant program enacted in 1988. It’s funding funneled equipment directly from the military to small and medium sized law enforcement agencies across America and set up a maze of regional task forces. That same year the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, created the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), soon known as the “drug’s czar’s” office. It’s mission was to consolidate federal action, and the initial charter assumed it was temporary executive office.

Tim McNutly, writing for the Chicago Tribune, laid out how common this kind of rallying cry had become for presidents: “John F. Kennedy convened a White House Conference on Drug Abuse in 1963, Richard M. Nixon ordered a “concentrated assault on the street-level heroin pusher” in 1972 and only three years ago Ronald and Nancy Reagan sat in in their residence in the White House and said, “Now we’re in another war for freedom.”

The public and both parties in congress argued over the toughest response not just to violent criminals, but to anyone who enabled drug use. If “Just Say No” hadn’t worked on your addiction, you were part of the problem. Over Bush’s first six months in office he tried to take stock of current drug policy, then offer innovations to win. The administration mostly talked to groups already invested in prohibition.

Returning from a three week vacation in Maine, Bush spoke before a church congregation the Sunday before his address he said, “We have to involve ourselves in the lives of others.”

For his address, Buch wanted to show how bad the problem was by proving that crack cocaine could be bought anywhere, even near the White House. However, 1600 Pennsylvania was quite safe and Drug Enforcement agents had to plan a sting just so Bush would have a prop. Reporter Michael Isikoff explained the work that went into setting up the buy in a Washington Post story a few weeks later:

 “…the undercover DEA agent called the suspect and attempted to set up a meeting to buy crack in Lafayette Park. But making arrangements proved difficult. At first, the suspect seemed not to know what or where the White House was, [assistant special agent in charge, DEA Washington office William] McMullan said. When finally told it was the residence of the president, he replied, “Oh, you mean where Reagan lives.”

Bush’s address reiterated what drug policy had been, but focused on new aspects. While local, state, and federal agencies had a number of laws and resources targeting drugs and trafficking, these efforts might work better if untied and coordinated in a national strategy. He also endorsed a variety of coercive practices meant to identify and punish drug users in schools, workplaces, or traveling. His plan further conflated casual drug use with heavy abuse in hopes that shaming the former would stop the latter.

The national strategy also expanded the “carrot and stick” approach where local governments only get federal money “A” for changing policy “B”. The manipulative practice sprung up years earlier when the federal government wanted the drinking age raised to 21; tying that law to highway funding. In a similar plan for drug laws, localities could get federal dollars if their sentencing and drug scheduling matched up with federal law.

The focus was mostly on domestic sales and consumption, but Bush was lead into development of the Andean Initiative to combat South American cartels. The five-year, $2 billion aid plan for Bolivia, Peru, and American’s largest cocaine source, Columbia. The money got approved in program called Plan Columbia, helping stabilize Columbia’s government in the 90s. However, the United Nation’s Office on Drugs & Crime (UNODC) still ranks all three nations as the top exporters of cocaine in their 2011 world report. And reports of military abuse of civilians remains frequent.

Bush lauded his ONDCP director, Bill Bennett. The drug czar, explained the administration’s budget in even starker terms to reporters days before, “crack is worse than taxes,” Bennett said.