Joe Biden’s War – Introduction

[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.

Part 2 – South America


  1. 1


    Well-written overview. Biden’s judgment in this case had devastating consequences for thousands of Americans.

  2. 2

    ug bootz spews:

    You don’t expect anyone to actually believe your ‘reassessment’ of history do you?

    We all know that whitey hates black people and hippies so they just want to keep everyone miserable. Get over it.

  3. 3


    You don’t expect anyone to actually believe your ‘reassessment’ of history do you?

    Yes, I do.

    You don’t expect anyone to actually pay attention to an anonymous comment from someone named ‘ug bootz’ (seriously, ‘ug bootz’… LOL), do you?

    By the way, the part of your comment that had links to the things I got wrong was missing. Please try posting it up again.

  4. 4

    Marvin Stamn spews:

    I’m still waiting for lee to keep his word about the protests at the rep & dem conventions.
    Nothing like welshing on a bet.
    Don’t worry, I knew you would never keep your word Lee, not someone who runs to his blogs to get the final word.
    Do you think that biden made the anti-black crack laws because he had never met a clean black man before he met obama. Or maybe biden had never met a black man that was articulate? Do you believe that biden bought into the institutionalized racism the democrat party endorses?
    The questions is whether lee is going to man up or continue on as the hypocrite he is.
    Jump lee jump!

  5. 5


    Wow, look who showed up in one of my comment threads! How about that? I believe that I’m still the one making you jump, Marvin.

    And you won the bet? That’s news to me.

    Jump, Marvin, jump!

  6. 6

    JesseMT spews:

    I don’t mean to be a jerk, but honestly I skip over anything Lee writes. It’s not that I don’t respect the views or positions – I agree with many of them. And Lee is a fine writer. It’s just that I used to come here for local progressive political news and commentary. Lee’s posts are all drug policy, all the time, and I’m just not that into it. Maybe he should have his own Web space. I’m sure he’d get a respectable readership.

    My two cents.

  7. 7


    Thanks Ivan. There’s a lot more to go. All six parts are about 13,000 words. :)

    Jesse, I’m not sure why any of that was important enough to leave in a comment, but I will say that this set of posts was written in large part for individuals like yourself, progressives who aren’t really convinced that drug policy matters. I probably won’t change your mind on why I find it so important to write about this topic, but I’m a political activist first and an entertainer second (or even third).

  8. 8

    correctnotright spews:

    Lee, I agree with much of what you wrote. But as much as I despise Nixon – his Drug program actaully had a fairly large treatment component and he hired some good scientists to run it. Under Nixon, they introduced Methadone treatment centers and other treatments for drugs.

    Now Methadone is not all that great an idea today (substituting one long-lasting, free oral drug without as much “high” for a shorter acting, illegal drug that people steal to get money for and die from injections and disease).
    It turns out that it is tougher to kick Methadone than Heroin too.

  9. 9

    My Left Foot spews:

    I understand what is being said by JesseMt.

    I read everything Lee writes except the drug stuff. I am simply not going to agree with his position. I know this. I smoked the stuff as a kid in high school. I left it behind when I graduated. I can see no use, other than being prescribed by a doctor for glaucoma and other ailments, for the stuff and we have laws in place that allow for that.

    Lee is entitled to write whatever he chooses and to have opinions of his own making. That is what our founders provided for when they formed this grand experiment.

    Who knows, maybe one day he will hit a nerve with me and change my mind.

    You just never know.

  10. 12

    correctnotright spews:

    Oh, and Lee – just because the law allows the drug czar to campaign against legalization of MJ laws doesn’t mean that has to happen. In fact, the drug czar under Obama could work to reduce the criminalization and enhance the treatment for drug offenders.

  11. 13

    steve spews:

    You can take Reagan’s words, substitute alchohol for drugs, and see where we are today. Prohibition doesn’t work.

  12. 14

    WatchManOnThe Wall spews:

    Obama clean? He is an admitted drug user,Still uses tobacco, So maybe the war should start in the whitehouse,Please!

  13. 15

    correctnotright spews:


    After an admitted alchoholic in the WH – Obama trying some drugs as a youth is hardly a comparison. wow – the total ignorance in search of a right wingnut way to go after Obama. You guys will reach for anything – you are soooo desperate.

  14. 16

    Marvin Stamn spews:

    5. Lee spews:
    Wow, look who showed up in one of my comment threads! How about that? I believe that I’m still the one making you jump, Marvin.

    You are not making me jump when you use my jump line. You are still copying me. It’s cute, in an elementary school way.

    And you won the bet? That’s news to me.

    Lots of stuff is news to you isn’t it.
    Are you going to pay up on the bet or are you going to chicken out. Just like you did when you wanted to kick my ass and chickened out.
    Let me ask you in a way that you can understand.
    Cluck cluck cluck, cluck cluck! Click cluck cluck cluck.

  15. 17

    My Left Foot spews:


    Buddy, pal.

    Shut the fuck up!!

    I will not only show up to kick your ass, I will gladly pay the medical bills to put your mouth back together.

    So, what do you say? Surely you can take on an old man with a bad heart?

    Lets see who is chicken now.

  16. 18

    nemo spews:

    What a lot of modern so-called ‘progressives’ are largely unaware of is the role that their ideological forebears played in the formulation of the very laws that have savaged our civil liberties.

    If you look back at the early 20th century in America, you see the rise of the ‘Progressive Era’, in which social justice issues ran headlong into Constitutional curbs on government functions. However, some of those so-called ‘progressives’ back then had some strange ideas about race, hold-overs of the bigotry common to the day.

    That bigotry held that ‘lesser races’ (or, ‘degenerate races’ as the godfather of cannabis prohibition Harry Anslinger publicly referred to minorities) couldn’t ‘hold their drugs’ like they couldn’t ‘hold their liquor’ (like ‘Injuns’ can’t take ‘firewater’), and were seen as being dangerously unpredictable while under the influence. They had to be controlled…for their own good, of course. Enter the Harrison Narcotics Act, predicated upon those very same racially bigoted stereotypes. The rest, as they say, is history.

    But make no mistake: the laws were formulated, not at the insistence of the traditional Constitutional conservatives who feared monkeying with the Constitution would cause problems later. Such had argued that twisting the Commerce Clause to allow for national, Federal regulation of drugs (that used to be a State matter) would later be used for other reasons that would prove to be deleterious to personal liberties. Nope, the impetus came from ‘progressive’ quarters. That’s how it all got started.

    So, for today’s ‘progressives’ to try to turn a blind eye to this issue, when it is at the forefront of both civil liberties and race relations, and to blithely declare a lack of interest with something that is at the core of many social justice issues today, is demonstrating a lack of that same ‘progressivism’. But then, anyone who does their homework on the history of the drug laws of this country will quickly learn just who wanted the laws and why…and we all know what has happened since. That source of that misery can be laid at the feet of long dead ‘progressives’…and those who want to claim their mantle today, for failing to deal with this issue with the seriousness it deserves.

    Maybe that’s why today’s ‘progressives’ don’t want to touch it; to do so is to own a problem their ideological progenitors caused. Kinda embarrassing, huh?

  17. 19


    Everyone who watched Reefer Madness is dead or dying soon. RIP.

    Now we just have to wait for most of their children to die…

    Legalization is inevitable.

    It was made and kept illegal with lies, but those that can see through the “smoke” realize change is needed.

    3 times now Obama has asked the American Public what needs changed. All three times Cannabis reform issues have made the top five. The “Citizens Briefing Book”, his last one, had the 1st and 3rd spots. 1st being legalization, 3rd being stop using federal funds to fight state reform laws.

    All of this goes to show that these “Reefer Madness Retards” are dying off.

    The majority of Americans want cannabis reform…

    I will leave you with my favorite quote, because after all, we have made people criminals that shouldn’t be.

    “Prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance. It is a species of intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A Prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.”

    -Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) U.S. President

    Obama, will you be one of the greats like Lincoln?

  18. 20

    Alex M spews:

    Prohibition has failed to reduce drug abuse or supply. More importantly, prohibition is wrong.

    Does the government have the right to decide what you do with your own body? NO. We have the freedom of choice as long as our choices don’t hurt others, but both the democrats and republicans have worked to convince us otherwise!

    Stop believing the lies. Throw the gangsters out of the white-house. Politicians who support prohibition support organized crime.

    Spread the truth. The drug war is a failure. The drug war has no measure of success. The drug war spends BILLIONS of dollars of your tax-money without reducing drug supply or demand.

    All our presidents have done illegal drugs. Throw the hypocrites out of office!

    “Change” is more of the same.

  19. 21

    marco spews:

    @ Lee comment 11

    You just lost all credibility.

    This is the person Obama just “appointed” to run the United States Treasury.

    1) Tax Evader – not that I have a problem with tax evasion. But I think anyone who’s made an “innocent mistake” yet had to forfeit their Property, Time, or even Life, may disagree with this.
    2) Central Banker – You know all those guys who run the PRIVATE banks that finance America’s Government and citizenry.
    3) IMF member – Perhaps you should do some research on the real effects the IMF has in the world and you may not have the same warm and fuzzy about “helping 3rd world nations” via the IMF.

    Yeah, Obama is his “boss” as much as Bush was Cheney’s “boss”. Or did you already forget how government works?

  20. 22


    thanks for this – useful background. lets hope that Obama – who clearly has a more progressive agenda – keeps him in check and makes a sensible choice for the new drugs tsar – hopefully someone from a public health rather than enforcement background.