Part IV: “…nothing but a handful of useless chemicals…” Following the addresses, Bush received a small bump in public approval, but it dissipated in the following weeks as conflicts with Congress drained his ability to follow though on his “no new taxes” pledge. Crime and drug legislation contributed to Bush reneging and agreeing to new revenue in 1991. Violent crime, economic stagnation, and drug use continued to spike throughout the remainder of his time in office. His only significant crime legislation would be for weapons of mass destruction in 1992.
So what can we learn from the model drug warrior riding the high of a drug war scare? Even adjusted for inflation, the Obama administration’s drug war budget today is larger than Bush’s first national strategy. In the following decades crime has seen a remarkable decline, more thanks to DNA and computer advancements than prohibition. Over the past quarter century drug use fluctuated independently of the national strategy.
Bush’s speech remains a high water mark for prohibition politics. Strict drug laws were becoming uniform nationwide, public support for action remained high despite overall skepticism of big government, casual use was stigmatized, and sweeping expansions of enforcement powers and equipment made the drug war a unifying and lucrative force for law enforcement.
Seeing the drug war through an inherited prism, the president promised contradictory goals, greater freedom through mandatory compliance, bringing prohibition’s fight to the user, while refusing more spending to do so. In trying to inspire more community outrage towards drugs, the president betrayed the reason the war couldn’t continue indefinitely. Black market drugs are more empowered by laws astray are by the casual user. Prevention efforts failed to explain the difference between alcohol and illegal drugs created by prohibiting one but not the other.
As he was concluding his speech before the nation, President Bush assured Americans, “But if we face this evil as a nation united, this will be nothing but a handful of useless chemicals. Victory — victory over drugs — is our cause, a just cause.”
But of course Americans are just now starting to understand what Bush failed to say that night. Drugs ARE useless chemicals, it’s the laws and abuse of them that gives them power.
As we look to the next 25 years, the public today feels that the deadly bacteria eating our nation’s soul is in fact, drug war politics. We’re moving from a golden age of the drug war, to an age of reform. Low level drug arrests are widely criticized, random drug testing is viewed as needlessly invasive. Marijuana legalization is increasingly popular, as are sentencing, prison, and police reforms.
The Obama administration took over an ONDCP little different then the one Bush left in 1993. Joe Biden, moving from the Senate to the Vice Presidency personifies the change, became a champion of cocaine sentencing reforms along the way. In 2009, Obama’s first drug czar, Gil Kerlikowski, promised a police group “Legalization is not in the president’s vocabulary, and it’s not in mine,” Within four years, the Obama administration would lay out guidelines for Washington and Colorado to move forward with their legal marijuana systems. In that way, when it comes to prohibition, President Bush was right. This scourge will stop.