I’ve spent the week at the Democratic National Convention and have
even ventured inside the Staples Center for a few hours here and there
of the official proceedings. It hasn’t been quite as bland as the
Republican confab in Philadelphia, but unless Al Gore unexpectedly
delivers a spellbinding stem-winder of a speech before this is posted,
it hasn’t been especially stimulating. The real action has been on the
streets and at the Shadow Convention.
The Shadow Convention, convened by columnist and celebrity Arianna
Huffington to address issues she and others say the major parties would
refuse to address during the conventions, shrewdly limited itself to
three major issues, so as to maintain some kind of focus. Two of those,
campaign finance reform and the wealth-poverty gap, have received a good
deal of attention both in the major parties and from the “mainstream”
media, although neither party was likely to feature them during the
conventions, which are pep rallies rather than issue forums after all.
The third issue the Shadow Conventions highlighted really has been
virtually absent from mainstream discussion, closer to a “third rail” of
American politics than Social Security ever was — the failed drug war.
Perhaps ironically or perhaps for that very reason, the day the Shadows
devoted to the topic drew the largest, most enthusiastic
crowds, people who sounded and seemed deeply committed to bringing this
issue out of the political shadows. And maybe, just maybe though
reformers have felt this way before the time has come for
reconsideration of this ill-considered policy.
Certainly the program put together by Ethan Nadelmann, head of the
Lindesmith Center/Drug Policy Foundation funded in large part by
billionaire speculator George Soros, was comprehensive and
authoritative. (Say what you like about George Soros — and I disagree
with him on most issues and thought his book was pretty silly — he
pushes causes that he actually believes in and puts his money where his
mouth is; would that more billionaires spent to push causes, right or
wrong, rather than to buy access, schmooze or get government to beat up
on their competitors.)
Most impressive to me was the number of elected officials from both
parties willing to “come out” with a conviction other officials share
but lack the political cover or intestinal fortitude to say: the drug
war has not only failed to keep drugs from “our kids” and can’t succeed,
it has done immeasurable harm to the American social fabric and to
millions of peoples’ lives.
I knew, for example, that Gary Johnson, the Republican governor of
New Mexico, had questioned the drug war. I was not prepared for him to
be so strong in his convictions, so well-informed, so willing to put
himself on the line for what he thinks is right.
Gov. Johnson is the kind of Republican any conservative would be
proud to embrace. He’s a self-made businessman, building a one-man
handyman service in 1974 into a company that employed 1,000 people in
1994. He’s a fiscal conservative and a “can-do” type who actually has
made some modest common-sense reforms in the way New Mexico’s government
operates and is the first New Mexico governor to be re-elected to a
He’s an athlete who works out every day and has run the Ironman
Triathlon in Hawaii three times, a happily married father of two
daughters. He doesn’t smoke, drink or do any kind of drugs. For whatever
reason, however, he has developed a capacity to make intelligent
distinctions. He urges everyone he knows not to use alcohol or tobacco,
but doesn’t think they should be illegal.
He notes, however, that some 400,000 people die prematurely from
using tobacco, several hundred thousand die prematurely from using
alcohol — and 5,000 people a year die from all the drugs the government
has declared illegal. “We are willing to arrest 1.6 million people a
year — half for marijuana, half of those Hispanic and a
disproportionate percentage of the rest African-American — to fail to
prevent those deaths,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense and it does a
great deal of harm. A business that clung to such failed policies with
such would have been bankrupt years ago.”
One of the more egregious side effects of the war on drugs, Gov.
Johnson notes, is that it destroys the capacity to make distinctions.
“About 95 percent of the people who use marijuana do so the way other
Americans drink a cocktail, and everybody knows it,” he says. “Yet law
enforcement is forced to treat every one of those people as somebody
with a serious problem who needs to be in forced rehabilitation. It’s
just not so, and a policy based on a lie is bound to fail.”
I have known Judge Jim Gray, the Orange County Superior Court judge
who introduced Gov. Johnson, is as sterling a straight-arrow
conservative as the governor and has a book on the drug war coming out
in January, for a number of years. But I didn’t know Mayor Ross “Rocky”
Anderson of Salt Lake City not only ended city support for the DARE
program but is using his position to call for rethinking the drug war.
Mayor Anderson knows that it won’t be easy to turn things around.
“Politicians are much more terrified of a 30-second attack ad calling
them soft on crime than of supporting an ineffective, wasteful, inhumane
policy that destroys families,” he says. The people will have to lead
the politicians, give them some cover, on this issue. To expect
leadership from political leaders is usually a fool’s errand.
But maybe that’s changing. Rep. Tom Campbell, the Republican
candidate for U.S. Senate in California spoke at both Shadow
Conventions, and after a cautious beginning he has developed into a
forceful drug war critic. On Tuesday he concentrated on two aspects of
the drug war — the disparate racial impact that results from the way
the war is carried out and the likelihood that drug war enthusiasms will
get is getting the United States involved in a Vietnam-like morass in
As Campbell pointed out, while most authorities agree that blacks
constitute about 11 percent of drug users, 60 percent of those in state
prisons for felony drug offenses are black. “We’re jailing an entire
young adult generation of black men, and by making them felons we’re
depriving them of the right to vote,” he said. “What Jim Crow was not
able to do to African-Americans the drug war may be doing.” As for
Colombia, we’re sending advisers and helicopters, and relocating people
into strategic hamlets where we’re promising to teach them how to grow
different crops, inserting ourselves into a long-term civil war in a
jungle country. “The only thing missing is Robert McNamara’s signature
on the plan,” said Rep. Campbell.
The racial disparities that have surfaced in the way the drug war is
prosecuted might account for the fact that many of the Democrats willing
to be identified with drug law reform are black. Jesse Jackson, who was
something of a gung-ho drug warrior himself in the 1980s, has come to
believe that the side effects of prohibition are worse than the side
effects of illegal drugs, and said so at the Shadow Convention. (Of
course Jesse was everywhere at the convention; he spoke from the podium
and at one of the street rallies the first day too.) Democratic Rep.
Maxine Waters of California was on the program. Rep. John Conyers, the
veteran Michigan Democrat who is the ranking member on the House
Judiciary Committee, wasn’t, but came by to lend support. Joanne Bowman,
a state legislator in Oregon and a Democratic convention delegate, gave
a fiery speech, urging people who don’t like what their representatives
do to “send them home.”
But it wasn’t only black Democrats who are willing to speak out on
this issue. California state Sen. Tom Hayden was there, sounding like a
moderate compared to others. Los Angeles City Council member Jackie
Goldberg welcomed the Shadow Convention and lent her vocal support to
the drug law reform cause. Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins were
unscheduled speakers. Comedians Bill Maher and Al Franken appeared.
The statements from politicians, by and large, were not the most
substantive speeches on the drug war. Ethan Nadelmann gave a masterly,
scholarly overview of the malign effects the war on drugs has — not
only on those arrested but on law enforcement, the judicial system, the
penal system, the political system and the ability of Americans to talk
honestly with one another. Doctors and addiction specialists explored
ways to implement a paradigm of harm reduction rather than punishment.
Doctors and patients helped by the medicinal properties of marijuana
told their stories.
While those on the front lines had more substance, the fact that
elected politicians of both parties are increasingly willing to touch
this “third rail” was the most encouraging fact at this Shadow session.
Perhaps in four years, or maybe eight, both party conventions will
feature speeches about the ability of the political system to identify
failed policies and change them. One can hope.