Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, once offered his insight into America’s nascent drug problem: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. It’s easy to laugh off Anslinger’s ignorant comments because they were made in another era. But recent claims from two other former drug czars are similarly anachronistic and wrongheaded.
William Bennett and John Walters, who served as drug czars for Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, respectively, wrote in a recent Washington Examiner op-ed, “Considering all that America knows about drug addiction, only the dishonest or willfully blind can claim that drug trafficking is a non-violent crime.” But who’s being dishonest? After all, words have meanings. “Violent,” for example, means to use physical force to do harm. Yet Bennett and Walters would like people to believe that Debi Campbell, a drug addict herself who sold drugs to buyers in other states through the mail, was violent. Campbell’s most violent act was opening an envelope, yet she served 17 years in federal prison. Stephanie Nodd was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for helping a friend sell drugs for one month. Stephanie was just 23 years old and had never lifted a finger against any person. Neither Campbell nor Nodd could by any conceivable measure be considered “violent” criminals. Bennett and Walters don’t want you to know they exist. But they do, and there are thousands more just like them.
Indeed, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that of the 22,000 federal drug offenders sentenced in fiscal 2104, only 142 – or 0.7 percent – used actual violence or threats of violence. 84 percent neither used nor had a weapon during the commission of their offense. And while Bennett and Walters are correct that most federal drug offenders are not college kids who were caught smoking a joint, they mislead readers when they describe them as “experienced traffickers.” Nine out of ten federal drug offenders played no leadership or management role. Many sold drugs solely for the purpose of feeding their own addiction. Again, words mean things. Pretending every drug sale is by definition an act of “violent victimization” is simply false.
Bennett and Walters also conflate federal and state crime statistics, misleading readers about the impact of federal reform legislation. They recite state offender recidivism rates before arguing that “[b]y softening punishments for these traffickers . . . Congress would give convicted dealers shorter sentences…causing destruction to communities across America.” First, a Civics 101 lesson: the bill pending in Congress has no effect on state prisoners. Second, the bill is incredibly modest. If passed, less than one half of one percent of all prisoners in America would be eligible for shorter prison sentences.
One wonders if Bennett and Walters realize how increasingly out of step they are with conservatives across the country. Conservative governors and state lawmakers are utilizing evidence-based solutions to reduce crime and bloated prison budgets, a win-win situation for taxpayers. Many conservatives in Washington, including Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) support sentencing reform. Cruz has written, “Harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes have contributed to prison overpopulation and are both unfair and ineffective relative to the public expense and human costs of years-long incarceration.”
But, the old drug czars say, “The cost of incarcerating drug dealers is small compared to the true cost of their crimes to society.” Even if that’s true, it’s irrelevant. The choice before Congress is not between incarcerating drug offenders and doing nothing. The more important question is whether sentencing flexibility for drug crimes can more effectively reduce recidivism – and at less cost to taxpayers – than harsh mandatory minimums. The indisputable answer, based on decades of states’ experiences, is yes.
Refusing to let any tragedy go to waste, Bennett and Walters suggest that the frightening increase in heroin overdoses is further evidence of the need for tough drug sentencing laws. What they fail to mention is that heroin dealers are already subject to stiff mandatory minimum sentences and have been for the past 30 years. This heroin epidemic is occurring under the regime Bennett and Walters helped to create. If that were not damning enough to their case, consider that the rate of illegal drug use by teenagers is the same today as it was when Bennett quit as drug czar in 1988.
I know that Bennett and Walters are genuinely concerned about making the country safer. And I agree with them that drug dealing is reprehensible and deserving of swift and certain punishment. Too often, however, their demagoguery appears calculated to exploit the public’s fears about safety the way Harry Anslinger exploited its racial prejudices decades ago. Conservatives interested in reducing crime and drug abuse should ignore fact-free fearmongering and support reforms that are rooted in science, evidence, and experience.