Long Reach of Cocaine

Long Reach of Cocaine
Posted by FoM on September 03, 1999 at 06:24:36 PT
William F. Buckley Jr.
Source: Salt Lake Tribune
WASHINGTONThe questions lit up by the rumor about Gov. George W. Bush and the use of cocaine, followed by his refusal to talk about the subject, have opened up broad discussions in which the governor is integrally involved.
Now the question has become less, Did George W. do it back then? than, Does George W.'s situation merit a re-examination of drug policy?   Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico volunteered his own history on a radio program. Yes, he had used marijuana, as also cocaine. He regretted having done so but thought the time had come to ask the central question: Is it good policy to pursue and handle drug users in the way we are now pursuing and handling them?   Sixty percent of the prison population in Texas is there for drug abuse. Eighty million Americans have used illegal drugs. Forty percent of black Americans in their 20s are under scrutiny of the law, in prison, on parole or under investigation -- mostly for drug offenses.   Now Bush is centrally involved in the drug-policy question because, of course, he is running for office as chief law-enforcement agent and has staked out a position on law and order. That position has been described aphoristically as "incarceration is rehabilitation," which translates to: Put them in jail, and crime will decrease, inasmuch as criminals can't practice their profession while in jail.   But the fundamental question, neatly raised by Gov. Johnson, has to do with the definition of crime. If possession of marijuana is a crime -- which it is in 47 states -- then 80 million Americans are going about our business notwithstanding a "criminal" past. On the graduated question of cocaine, one notes that the United States has 5 percent of the world's population and consumes 50 percent of the world's production of cocaine.   Conceive a fantasy: You are required to push the A button or the B button. The A button would instantly incarcerate all illegal drug users. The B button would drop charges against illegal drug users. Which button would you depress? Does your allegiance to law and order propel you to put millions of people in jail? Or are you inclined to modify your opinion about what should be a jailable offense?   Gov. Bush is up against it. One letter-writer in St. Paul, Minn., put his point acidulously: "I think a cocaine-besmirched George W. Bush should run for president only after he has waited out the number of years that a cocaine possessor might be sentenced to under his own Texas drug-prohibition law." The writer engages in a paralogism -- George W. isn't asking the public to condone past behavior, no more than St. Augustine did in his Confessions. But the governor could contribute something on the order of an Augustinian review of the moral history of the whole problem, and it would begin by acknowledging that mandatory sentences for drug offenses are miscast ideas, requiring among other things a new look at what is or ought to be a drug offense.   Gov. Bush could do this, could comment on the recommendation of the Nixon commission back in 1973, which argued against the wisdom of prison sentences for those found in possession of marijuana for their own use. Certainly he could opine on the disparity in the federal law against cocaine use and against crack cocaine.   The temptation, surely, will be to say that as chief executive of the state of Texas, his warrant is to apply the laws, as passed by the Legislature. But just as, if he becomes president, he is called upon to make recommendations to the Congress, he has made recommendations to the Legislature in Austin, and two of these have touched on the drug problem. Gov. Bush signed in 1997 a bill mandating that judges sentence first-time felons convicted of possessing a gram or less of cocaine to a minimum of 180 days in a state jail. That position contrasted with that of his predecessor. Gov. Ann Richards gave first-time offenders automatic probation with drug counseling.   It is, of course, possible that after three, five, 10 weeks, the problem will simply go away, even as Bill Clinton's problems -- adultery, draft evasion, marijuana, lying -- went away. But Gov. Bush has the special hardship Republicans (and indeed conservatives) have, which is that they tend to be judged by tougher standards. That is as it should be, but San Mateo, Calif., letter-writer Dr. Tom O'Connell writes persuasively in the Chicago Tribune: "Speaking as the parent of three now-mature Baby Boomers, [I say that] I'm reluctant to vote for anyone who grew up during that era in our history and never experimented with drugs even once. The only person I'm even more reluctant to vote for is someone who did -- but now refuses to come clean."   But then that is Pontius Pilate time: How do you define clean?   Pubdate: September 3, 1999   Copyright 1999, The Salt Lake Tribune 
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