Why Republicans Did Not Say No to Drug Reform Law

Why Republicans Did Not Say No to Drug Reform Law

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There was some surprise that House Republicans did not exert their much-deserved reputation as the “party of no” on the one issue that seemed like a slam dunk for galvanizing GOP opposition: drug law reform. Other than the obligatory denunciation of the drug scourge and expressing opposition to softening enforcement of drug laws, House Republicans quietly chose not to stonewall passage of the law that modified the racially biased sentencing for first-time crack cocaine possession. Even more surprisingly, last March the Senate unanimously passed the drug sentencing reduction measure, with no opposition from GOP senators.

Under the old law, judges were required to slap a minimum mandatory sentence of five years on anyone caught with crack cocaine. More than 80 percent of those sentenced for crack use are poor, ill-educated blacks. Those caught with the same amount of powdered cocaine, mostly middle-class, suburban whites, get probation and referrals to drug programs. Congress didn’t completely toss out the disparity in sentencing laws. The new ratio for possession of crack vs. powdered cocaine is now 18 to 1. The previous sentencing disparity was 100 to 1. This is arguably a major step forward for politicians, who quake in terror at the faintest hint that they could be considered soft on crime. President Obama will sign the reform measure.

The stand down on the drug law change is no accident. In 1996, conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. publicly branded the war on drugs a failure, and called for legalizing marijuana. Buckley went further and engaged prominent conservatives in a much-publicized debate on the National Review Online on the merits and demerits of decriminalizing drugs. In the next decade, other noted conservatives weighed in on the issue and many agreed with Buckley that the drug war was a miserable failure. They blasted it as cost-ineffective, a drain on personnel and state budgets, and for the wild expansion of a prison bureaucracy. Conservatives also claimed that the failed war puffed up the power of big government, and for libertarian Republicans, it represented an assault on privacy and personal freedoms. The list of names of the biggest and best-known conservative icons who to one degree or another have expressed doubts about drug laws include: Milton Friedman, Rich Lowry, Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, Glenn Beck, Tom Tancredo, Bob Barr, Grover Norquist and George Shultz. Fox News conservative hawks Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly have not actively opposed medical marijuana use.

The silence of House Republicans on the congressional reform measure hardly means that mainstream GOP politicians are ready to become full-blown anti-drug war crusaders. However, the willingness of so many prominent conservatives to publicly voice their doubts about drug laws signals that drug reform is no longer a taboo subject within the GOP. The drug war, in effect, is now a legitimate subject of conservative debate.

The softening of GOP opposition is not entirely due to an epiphany about runaway costs and the threat to liberties. It’s also about politics. Polls show that a sizeable number of voters now think that the drug war has failed or is ineffective. A majority of voters in a growing number of states overwhelmingly back medical marijuana legalization, and even full legalization of marijuana for adults. Drug law reform, then, is clearly an issue that’s back on the nation’s political table. The GOP aims to have a seat at that table.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk show on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles.
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