3 Ways the “War on Drugs” Relates to Partisan Politics

1. President Nixon used his right to presidential opacity productively

After narcotic squads and racially motivated enforcement was at issue in the 1950s, the drug war as we know it began with an election promise from President Richard Nixon. Nixon won and held a popular stance of promising swift justice and no tolerance for dealers and abusers; the hardline rhetoric surrounding his newly minted “war” matched its energetic support.

However, the hardline, no-tolerance enforcement of Nixon’s drug war only used a third of its budget; the rest was dedicated to researching and developing treatment programs. In this regard, Nixon was a smart and shrewd leader; he respected the expertise of the professionals telling him which tactics worked, yet he knew the electorate was most receptive to a zero tolerance message.

He ran again in 1972 on the no-tolerance platform, but this time his strategic tough-talk clashed with existing programs. The public bought into his hardline approach, as did thousands of aspiring politicians without knowledge of Nixon’s actual priorities. When Nixon’s presidency and his legitimacy was spectacularly unraveled before the world, he suddenly became emblematic of an unknown opaque and cynical executive culture.

Keeping people in the dark, however, allowed Nixon to work around his election material and craft policy for the real problem. Post-Watergate, the conservatives, inspired by his war rhetoric, disavowed Nixonian manipulation, interpreting populist generalizations like “tough on crime” literally. Unfortunately for addicts, this meant only more punishment and stigmatization.

The ideological absolutism stimulated by these events is still present today in the extremes of American politics. Americans increasingly self-polarize, encouraged by increasingly polarized representatives heavily influenced by special interests.

2. Many laws have been passed without clear rationale — with conspicuous partisan priorities

The process that created crack sentencing or “three strikes” also fueled ideological clashes on voter ID or health care reform. The Reagan era brought all of Nixon’s aggressive rhetoric with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the apex of “tough on crime.”

Strict mandatory minimum sentences were enacted for all substances, and sentencing discretion was limited even if a judge thought it was necessary. Probation was altered from a reentry program to a punitive one, leading to high recidivism rates as parolees saw incentives switch from “striving for reward” to “not getting caught.”

Poor crack users were sentenced at a 100:1 ratio to wealthy users of cocaine. In other words, one would have to traffic 500 grams of cocaine to earn the same sentence for trafficking 5 grams of crack, the scientific justification for which was debunked in 1997.

With definitive studies not due for years, in 1994 California sparked a national trend with the harshest version yet of the “three strikes” sentencing model. Providing the first two offenses were felonies, the third offense could include any small infraction. After a third strike, a life sentence is unavoidable.

By the time crack sentencing was reduced to 18:1 in 2010 and “three strikes” was amended in 2012, low-level drug offenders were stretching the system. It took decades for observers to statistically debunk the exaggerations of “tough on crime,” and it will take even longer to legislate accordingly.

3. Winning an election often insists on throwing blame

“Tough on crime,” according to investigative reporter Charles Bowden, asked the wrong question (who is responsible for drug use?) and led to the wrong answer (Users and dealers). Exploiting tensions to misidentify problems appears to be a popular strategy for politicians. If asked to assign blame for the recession, a dedicated partisan may choose from any number of subjective and incomplete answers, including under-regulation, over-regulation, wealthy elites, or welfare recipients.

Although the drug war’s corrosion of the economy is unseen by most, both our economic problems and our prison problems are systemic, massively complex, and universally misdiagnosed, by virtue of preconceptions unchallenged by statistics for years. The boom-bust cycle has done more to contribute to prison growth than even misguided policies; as David Simon of The Wire observed in the documentary “The House I Live In,” our economic engine has little qualms over rejecting its least essential contributors, facilitating black markets in self-medication.

In order to fix a complicated machine, one has to clearly see all its interlocking parts; if the magnifying glass used analyze only gives an unclear approximation, repairs won’t be effective. If our political dialogue continues to be shaped by blame and soundbites, “solutions” could do more harm than good.