[This is the first in a six part series on Vice President Joe Biden and his background as one of America’s staunchest drug warriors. Parts 2-6 will be posted each morning this week]
In the fall of 1982, the Reagan Administration’s Justice Department introduced a plan to spend up to $200 million for anti-drug enforcement efforts. The plan was to create a more coordinated network of FBI and DEA agents, along with the Coast Guard and the military, to bring down the drug trafficking networks that were operating in major American cities. Delaware Senator Joe Biden was quoted in the New York Times as saying that it wasn’t enough, and that we needed to have a “drug czar” to oversee these operations. By the end of Reagan’s second term, Biden’s request had become a reality, as the Office of National Drug Control Policy was created. Secret gambling enthusiast Bill Bennett was named as America’s first Drug Czar.
It’s commonly said that the modern drug war was launched by Richard Nixon a decade earlier, after he ignored his own commission’s recommendation to decriminalize marijuana and instead decided to wage war on potheads. But the escalations of the drug war in the 1980s have arguably had far more devastating consequences than anything Nixon did.
The tragic overdose death of college basketball star Len Bias in 1986, after he’d been selected by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA draft, prompted the biggest wave of anti-drug legislation in our nation’s history. Congress passed new laws targeting the drug trade, including a number of mandatory minimum jail sentences for various offenses. This legislation included the infamous 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder limits, a distinction that made it easier to fill our jails to the brim with African-Americans, who were not only tend to be targeted for drug laws, but have been far more likely to be in possession of cheaper crack-cocaine in lower income neighborhoods. In the meantime, it’s done much less to disrupt the trade among wealthier (and whiter) powder cocaine sellers and users.
When the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was signed, President Reagan made the following comments:
The magnitude of today’s drug problem can be traced to past unwillingness to recognize and confront this problem. And the vaccine that’s going to end the epidemic is a combination of tough laws — like the one we sign today — and a dramatic change in public attitude. We must be intolerant of drug use and drug sellers. We must be intolerant of drug use on the campus and at the workplace. We must be intolerant of drugs not because we want to punish drug users, but because we care about them and want to help them. This legislation is not intended as a means of filling our jails with drug users. What we must do as a society is identify those who use drugs, reach out to them, help them quit, and give them the support they need to live right.
Two decades later, America has seen its jails filled with 25% of the world’s prisoners, despite having only 5% of its population. This legislation did exactly what Reagan said it wouldn’t do. It filled our jails with non-violent people with drug problems and failed to give people the support they needed to live right. And he had no greater ally in the Senate for setting all of this in motion than Joe Biden. After Biden became chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in November, 1986, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported:
Other than reviewing judicial nominees, Biden said his priority as Judiciary chairman would be the creation of a “drug czar,” a cabinet-level officer to coordinate the nation’s war on drugs.
Not only did Biden succeed, but he created an office that was truly Orwellian in nature. By law, the Drug Czar’s office is required not only to oversee law enforcement activities, but it’s also required to actively oppose legalization efforts, even if that requires them to ignore science or lie. In 2003, Congressman Ron Paul accused the ONDCP of using public funds to propagandize and spread misinformation. The General Accounting Office responded by telling Paul sorry, but that’s what the law requires them to do.
This is why Drug Czar John Walters was able to travel to Michigan this summer – on the taxpayer’s dime – and campaign against their medical marijuana bill. Something that’s illegal for many federal officials under the Hatch Act of 1939 is actually part of the job description for the Drug Czar. It would be like requiring the Secretary of Health and Human Services by law to campaign against universal health care; or commanding the director of the EPA to propagandize for one side in the global warming debate regardless of what scientists are saying. Thankfully, the voters of Michigan still voted overwhelmingly to pass their initiative.
In recent years, the horrific outcome of the sentencing disparity has become so great to ignore that even Joe Biden has been working on legislation to fix it. But the drug war escalations throughout the 1980s and the creation of the Drug Czar’s office has caused far more damage than just giving this county a quarter of the world’s prisoners. It has been devastating to our allies, our foreign relations, our inner cities, our civil rights, and our reputation as a nation that was premised on treating individual liberty as an ideal.