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

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part three 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 III: “We need is another D-Day, not another Vietnam…” A major obstacle for President Bush at this time was the deficit. A popular pledge in his campaign speeches had been “read my lips, no new taxes.” Democrats controlled congress, and would have been happy to make him break this pledge to pay for the drug war. Though he would propose what was then the largest one year increase in drug war spending, $2.2 billion, much of it was moved from other government spending.

“Caught, prosecuted, punished.” President Bush warned drug users and sellers alike.  Joint task forces could get more federal dollars and asset forfeiture, with little oversight from Uncle Sam so long as they served warrants and made seizures and arrests. Prosecutors pushed to get convictions on even low level offenses unless the person became an informant. Mandatory sentencing took discretion from judges.

Even with rhetoric made to beat the war drum, public reaction to his address was mixed. Immediately following Bush’s speech, Delaware senator Joe Biden offered an official Democratic response. Biden explained that congressional democrats “don’t oppose the president’s plan. All we want to do is strengthen it.”

“The president says he wants to wage a war on drugs, but if that’s true, what we need is another D-Day, not another Vietnam – not a limited war fought on the cheap and destined for stalemate and human tragedy,” Biden solemnly said.

Bush’s policies were not radically different, nor were Biden’s and congressional Democrats. Still, they set a precedent that politicians of both parties would follow for years. In Drugs and Culture: Knowledge, Consumption, and Policy editors Geoffrey Hunt, Maitena Milhet, and Henri Bergeron suggest the administration codified not just prohibition, but a war-like posture for the wider culture war:

    “…the Republicans had established themselves as the party of hard drug policy and the Democrats were struggling to keep up. This explains why there were no major shifts in federal policy after the Democrats recaptured the White House in 1992.”

Perhaps the soberest review of the address came from Marshall Ingwerson at the Christian Science Monitor

“On the other hand, Mr. Bush brings the war metaphor to the anti-drug effort without having managed the full mobilization that the term conveys.”

“After discussing the speech with two dozen of his students who watched it, says Dr. [Michael Robinson, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University] surmises that the typical viewer “walked away from his television set saying, give it your best shot, George.”

Within a week of the speech, the president gave a televised re-packaging of the address for school kids. He alluded to the great challenge in what government was trying to do, mixing civic duty and police action.

How can drugs cause so much pain? How can they lead brothers to kill brothers and mothers to abandon children? And behind all of the senseless violence, the needless tragedy, what haunts me is the question: Why?

I have one answer. Drugs are still a problem because too many of us are still looking the other way. [ … ] You know — all of you in a classroom know — who’s got a problem. Today I’m not just asking you to get help. I’m asking you to find someone who needs you, and offer to help. I’ll say it again: If you’re not in trouble, help someone who is.

  [ … ] Saying no won’t make you a nerd. It won’t make you a loser. In fact, it will make you more friends than drugs ever will — real friends.

But if that’s not enough reason, there’s another side: Using illegal drugs is against the law. And if you break the law, you pay the price. Because the rules have changed. If you do drugs you will be caught, and when you’re caught you will be punished. You might lose your driver’s license — some States have started revoking users’ driving privileges. Or you might lose the college loan you wanted — because we’re not helping those who break the law. These are privileges, not rights. And if you risk doing drugs, you risk everything, even your freedom. Because you will be punished

Bush would mention “drugs” more than 25 times, cocaine and alcohol were each mentioned twice. Marijuana got no direct mention. The gap in this message was picked up by students and reported by Bernard Weinraub in the New York Times:

“The unanimity stopped, however, when the students were asked whether the speech would make a difference. Hands shot up. ”Some people do it just because people say, ‘don’t do it,’ ” said Pleasance Lowengard, a sixth grader.

Some children in the group, all 10 to 12 years old, thought the President should have included alcohol in his message. Indeed, based on the 45-minute discussion that followed the President’s speech, most of the students had seen far more evidence of alcohol abuse, in their own families or in those of their friends, than they had from cocaine, marijuana or heroin.”