The Drug Policy Dance: Ask a Stupid Question...

By Al Giordano

There are few public policy issues more difficult to tackle than that of the so-called "war on drugs." So shrouded in prejudice and punishment, mythology and confusion, it doesn't seem to matter to those in charge that the decades long prohibitionist policy doesn't work. Or, more accurately: It doesn't work to diminish the harms associated with drug use (it in fact exacerbates them), but the drug war serves other unmentioned goals not of controlling drugs, but of controlling people, pointedly the young and the poor, and those of other nations.

Typical for the drug issue, although the policy makes the United States the most imprisoned people on earth - as US Senator Jim Webb noted yesterday, a country with five percent of the world's population holds 25 percent of all the prisoners on earth - the body politic and its media enablers have so far proved totally incapable of having a rational discussion of how that failed system might be reformed.

Day in, day out, the drug war marches on to relative silence from the political class. And then all of a sudden a day like yesterday occurs, when the matter explodes in the media from many fronts at once.

Your correspondent was in Mexico this week, covering the two-day visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and in our report we published an English-language scoop: That the man who the Mexican press says is likely to be nominated as the next US Ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, vice president of the Brookings Institution, is a veritable “shock doctor” of the Shock Doctrine who specializes in “post-conflict stability.”

My report offers some pointed critiques of the Obama administration’s continuance of “Plan Mexico” (the “Merida Initiative”) - a so far $1.4 billion "anti-drug" initiative" - that has already doubled the murder rate south of the border while halving the volume of illicit drugs seized. How’s that for boneheaded government action? The year 2008 was the best year so far for organized crime in Mexico, and it’s the fault of a US policy promoted by Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

If you want to know what is really happening with the drug war in Mexico, please do read that report.

On the same day, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided a medical marijuana clinic in California, just a week after Attorney General Eric Holder had told reporters that the raids would be ceased.

Adding insult to injury, the President’s response yesterday during his live online “Open for Questions” session to a query about marijuana policy in a mocking and mean-spirited tongue parted considerably with his “respect, empower, include” credo that has served him so well to date:

THE PRESIDENT: Can I just interrupt, Jared, before you ask the next question, just to say that we -- we took votes about which questions were going to be asked and I think 3 million people voted or --

DR. BERNSTEIN:  Three point five million.

THE PRESIDENT:  Three point five million people voted.  I have to say that there was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy -- (laughter) -- and job creation.  And I don't know what this says about the online audience -- (laughter) -- but I just want -- I don't want people to think that -- this was a fairly popular question; we want to make sure that it was answered.  The answer is, no, I don't think that is a good strategy -- (laughter) -- to grow our economy.  (Applause.)

The president's position was known already from the first round of the “Open for Questions” online forum last December  – when a question about legalizing marijuana similarly made it to the top of the pile and more nuanced questions about reforming drug policies filled the top 20 and top 100 questions according to the rankings by the number of votes each query received. On December 16, we graded the President-elect’s handling of the questions with an “F” because he or his staff chose the easiest question to blow off (legalize marijuana, yes or no?) and disregarded the ones about sentencing of nonviolent offenders to prison and such that were matters upon which candidate Obama took progressive stances on during the campaign.

This was the top question back in December:

Q: "Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and create a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?"

A: President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana.

It was essentially the same question that the President answered yesterday, only this time by ridiculing both his online constituency and the tens of millions of marijuana users and patients in the US. His tone was deplorable and unfortunate. No excuses can be made for it. And it’s going to rarify relations with a not insignificant part of his political base, no doubt, unless and until he corrects himself. (It was sure a far cry from his refreshing 2007 admittance to having smoked grass as a youth: “I inhaled. That was the point." The President's snide comments yesterday tempt me to quip, I don't know what this says about the audience that runs for president.)

That said, pot legalization activists and organizations that urged the “voting up” of many questions that were essentially the same as that which had already been answered back in December didn’t help the cause for a saner drug policy either. They played a role in this dance, too. In effect, they willingly stepped on the rake that today hit all drug policy reformers on the forehead.

A much smarter question to have rated up would have been something like the now fourth-place one at the Ask the President website:

I believe that one of the most ignored problems in this country is the massive cost, both social and economic, of the maintenance of our massive prison system. Especially during these difficult economic times, this is a cost that our country cannot continue to bear. What are your thoughts on the possibility of prison reform, especially in the area of drug crime?

Here it is. You can click the green "thumbs up" button to nudge it toward the top:

(Full disclosure: The Field is one of the founding sponsor organizations of this project led by The Nation, The Washington Times and the Personal Democracy Forum, although after Ari Melber of The Nation sought out projects like ours and Jack & Jill Politics to co-sponsor it, they so far have neglected to list the collaborating organizations on the website; a small, but annoying nonetheless, oversight.) The idea of the project is sound: to have top questions asked during White House presidential press conferences. The project has some legs, and may well achieve that goal in the coming months.

That question, above, is frankly a much better phrased question than “legalize marijuana” up or down, because during the campaign candidate Obama did talk about sentencing reform and it’s a pledge he hasn’t yet made good on.

It would be harder for him or anybody to ridicule that policy question or imply that it blew out of the stoned ears of those crazy kids on the Internets. That’s the kind of question that drug policy and marijuana reform organizations ought to be voting up, instead of the phrasings for which they already know the answer will be “no.”

So, yes, while I’d give the President another “F” for his mean spirited response to the legalization question yesterday, I think any organization or network or individual that pushed rating that question up over a more strategic one on drug policy also gets a failing grade. In this case the stupid answer came predictably from the asking of a stupid question – mainly because it had been asked and answered once already, and in a way that didn’t forward the goals of drug policy or marijuana law reform.

Organizing to move public opinion and the political class ain’t beanbag. It requires strategy and tactics.

On that note, a real smart initiative was launched today by US Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia): The National Criminal Justice Act of 2009.

The National Criminal Justice Act of 2009 that I introduced in the Senate on March 26, 2009 will create a blue-ribbon commission to look at every aspect of our criminal justice system with an eye toward reshaping the process from top to bottom. I believe that it is time to bring together the best minds in America to confer, report, and make concrete recommendations about how we can reform the process.

Why We Urgently Need this Legislation:

- With 5% of the world's population, our country now houses 25% of the world's reported prisoners.

- Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200% since 1980.

- Four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals.

- Approximately 1 million gang members reside in the U.S., many of them foreign-based; and Mexican cartels operate in 230+ communities across the country.

- Post-incarceration re-entry programs are haphazard and often nonexistent, undermining public safety and making it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to become full, contributing members of society.

America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace. Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness. Our failure to address this problem has caused the nation's prisons to burst their seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become more dangerous. We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives. 

We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration.

Webb’s web page offers links to materials and resources to help citizens build public support for this nascent legislation (co-sponsored by US Senator Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania), including one to his upcoming article this Sunday in Parade magazine: What’s Wrong with Our Prisons?

There are drug policy reform organizations that have figured this out – that on an issue as emotionally polarizing as drugs, how organizers approach it, and the language used, often makes the difference between victory and defeat. The Drug Policy Alliance is an important leader among those that "get" how it needs to be done.

But I can’t say that yesterday was a great day for the reform movement as a whole, because other less strategic, more petulant, organizations and individuals insisted on rating up the one question that had already been answered, that they should have known would have failed to achieve the desired results during yesterday’s “Open for Questions” session at the White House.

Next time, ask a smarter question... and you might well get a smarter answer.



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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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