What can the US learn about the war on drugs from its less powerful neighbours? And how can Bill Clinton help? Tracy Quan looks for answers.
The big surprise in Breaking the Taboo - a one-hour documentary about the $US2.5 trillion war on drugs, narrated by Morgan Freeman - isn’t the violent footage filmed in Colombia at the height of drug lord Pablo Escobar’s career. Nor is it the ugly sound of American cops advancing toward their prey to make a drugs arrest.
It’s not the devastated architecture we see in parts of Baltimore, less than an hour from Washington, DC. And it’s not when former president Jimmy Carter calls for a radical change in US drug policies.
President Carter was a vocal supporter of decriminalising marijuana in the 1970s and isn’t beholden to the powers that be in 2012. Indeed, he tried to de-escalate things after Richard Nixon got this war off the ground in 1971.
The surprise is Bill Clinton, a hawkishly efficient liberal who would never have risked becoming a one-term president like Carter. His comprehensive and grotesque 1994 federal crime bill expanded the death penalty, made it easier to imprison people for non-violent drug violations and made it harder for those same prisoners to get an education.
Now that governing is safely behind him, Clinton tells us how his policies have failed:
“If the expected result was that we would eliminate serious drug use in America and eliminate the narco-trafficking networks, it hasn’t worked.”
He talks about his brother’s cocaine problem, and his comparisons with tobacco make me wonder if that 1994 crime bill was just a bad dream.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s political career is the elephant in the room. The Clintonian approach to drugs in 2012 reminds me of the Nineties, when People magazine ran a cover story about Bill and Hillary’s “tag-team parenting”.
Bill is every bit the lenient dad, admitting that “a police or military solution … doesn’t solve the problem,” while Hillary, as secretary of state, plays policewoman to the world’s misguided hedonists.
At a Foreign Policy magazine forum in November, she made clear her opposition to legalising drugs in the US.
If Hillary is elected president in 2016, Bill won’t be anything like Nancy Reagan, the White House spouse who fomented her own war on drugs in the 1980s with “Just Say No.”
But he might decide to tone down his support for drug policy reform should Hillary run for office.
In the recent US national elections, Washington state and Colorado voted to legalise recreational marijuana, raising questions about states’ rights. Marijuana is federally prohibited, and states asserting their own laws in defiance of federal power is a loaded concept.
“States’ rights” is often code for trying to reverse the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion throughout the land. It signifies the closing of public schools in Virginia to avoid racial desegregation in 1959, and federal marshals stepping in to protect black students in the 1960s. Legal marijuana presents a different conflict.
Instead, we could see the federal Department of Justice stepping in to seize property from Colorado’s licensed pot dealers. This would create some intriguing political alliances during the mid-term elections in 2014 and, perhaps, some tension for the Clintons.
The movement to reinvent America’s domestic and global drug policies is a mixed bag with no discernible left-right predictors. Former secretary of state George Schultz, a proponent of preventive war in Iraq and Republican strategist, has opposed the preventive war on drugs since 1989, when he left public office. (Unfortunately, the Bush administration was more interested in his thinking on Iraq.)
From Switzerland to Brazil, arguing against the drug war is a retirement gig for former presidents. I’m glad Carter and Clinton are speaking up. Both men have watched our prison population soar from 330,000 in 1970 to 2.3 million today.
That’s “more than any other country in the history of the world ever,” says Dr Peter Moskos, a criminologist who appears in Breaking the Taboo.
Numbers and years are an abstraction until you’re personally affected.
Stephanie George, serving a life sentence without parole, recently told John Tierney of the New York Times: “Sometimes I still can’t believe myself it could happen in America”. Her unstated but clearly-implied faith in the US justice system is chilling.
Actually, Bill Clinton might see George as a poster child for his new cause; she was sentenced in 1996, two years after the passage of his federal crime bill.
Speaking of presidents, Obama has to know that black people are disproportionately punished for drug violations, but the way this game is now played in the US, we won’t get his real views on the prison boom until he too is out of office.
In order to change, the US might learn from smaller, less-powerful nations - something we don’t like to do.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalised all drugs, while in Uruguay President Jose Mujica authored the first draft of a bill to legalise pot. In Breaking the Taboo, what emerges is that smaller countries and their leaders sometimes exhibit more courage.
Breaking the Taboo is released on Youtube - is directed by Cosmo Feilding Mellen and Fernando Grostein Andrade. In English and Spanish. 58 minutes. Many thanks to Jag Davies and Tony Newman at the Drug Policy Alliance, for sharing US government and NGO prison statistics.
Tracy Quan’s latest novel is “Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl.” She lives in New York. View her full profile here.