EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one of a four part series that Mr. Hirschburg has written for MJ News Network, as part of our Cannabis Elections 2014 coverage.
“Good evening. This is the first time since taking the oath of office that I felt an issue was so important, so threatening, that it warranted talking directly with you, the American people.”
With that, President George H.W. Bush began his national address on the drug war, and intensified a war with millions arrested or incarcerated, staggering costs, police militarization, refugee immigration, coerced treatment, and children as innocent bystanders to social engineering schemes.
George Bush did not intend all this. He didn’t create the Drug War. But on September 5th, 1989, he gave the most consequential speech on drug policy by a U.S. president in the last quarter century.
Part I: “This scourge will stop.”
George H.W. Bush had spent the previous eight years as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, helping craft that Administration’s “Tough on crime, tough on drugs” persona. He used the lessons well in his own election in 1988.
The cannabis movement of the 1970s tied itself in to a host of causes, anti-war, pro-environment, pro-civil liberties, anti-government spying, and so on. There were benefits to working together, but the movement’s reputation ended up tied to a number of radical groups. Voters flirtation with reform ended with some states decriminalized low level possession, but federal reform returned to a third rail issue. Touch it and die.
Credited with declining use of some drugs in the 80s, author of Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics Matthew Robinson, shows many downward shifts started in the two years before Reagan’s presidency. Despite this drop, crack stayed abundant in most cities and because crack users were poorer and often black, its use was presented as a genuine threat. The scapegoating left marijuana a nuisance drug, whose greatest risk was as a “gateway drug” to crack.
Eager media outlets wanted in on anti-drug ad buying, and often reported the government position as truth. And there was plenty of crime to report, the homicide rate in was nearly double what was in 2010. Crackdowns over made the drug trade increasingly militant. Organized crime could match law enforcement firepower. Economics of scale kicked into cocaine production, and cocaine of 1989 was as much as six times cheaper than a decade earlier. Crack was just another way to produce cheaper dosages. Reports of crack as the super-cocaine, more harmful and addictive ran frequently, while fledgling cable news failed to notice (or maybe care) that constant reporting on drug crime helped conflate the concepts of “drugs” and “crime.”
Reagan (and Bush) suffered some resistance to the war on drugs during the Iran-Contra affair, when it became clear government officials were ignoring some cocaine imports to finance arms for hostages in Iran. There was speculation during the scandal as to what Bush and Reagan knew, and when. While the public still feared the use of illegal drugs, the debacle eroded administration claims of effectiveness and accountability.
The Bush campaign’s infamous 1988 Willie Horton TV ad told voters about a Massachusetts felon who used a weekend furlough to commit armed robbery and rape. It kept moralizing in political tactics, not just drug policy. The ad’s racial tone and anecdotal argument worked, helping portray Gov. Michael Dukakis as partly responsible for Horton’s crimes. Political strategist Lee Atwater would apologize for divisive tactics, including the Horton Ad, on his deathbed. Republican broad painting opponents as “soft on crime” and Bush’s promise not to raise taxes while continuing many of President Reagan’s policies was winning formula on election day.
Explaining his moral view in his inaugural address, Bush came across contradictorily,
“In fact, I yearn for a greater tolerance, an easy-goingness about each other’s attitudes and way of life. There are few clear areas in which we as a society must rise up united and express our intolerance. The most obvious now is drugs. And when that first cocaine was smuggled in on a ship, it may as well have been a deadly bacteria, so much has it hurt the body, the soul of our country. And there is much to be done and to be said, but take my word for it: This scourge will stop.”