Rumors of (Drug) War

Big government, Gingrich style.


Last November, Newt Gingrich interpreted Republican electoral gains as a stunning rebuke of "bigger government…and bureaucracies deciding how you should spend your money." But the Speaker's continuing calls for a new and improved War on Drugs underscore a belief that government alone remains capable of deciding whether you should spend your money on, say, a marijuana cigarette (he has not, so far anyway, spoken out against the tobacco variety).

"The first time we execute 27 or 30 or 35 people at one time, and they go around Colombia and France and Thailand and Mexico, and they say, `Hi, would you like to carry some drugs into the U.S.?' the price of carrying drugs will have gone up dramatically," says Gingrich, who has admitted to smoking pot. Under legislation that he has promised to "personally" introduce, dealers importing "commercial quantities" of drugs would be sentenced to death; they would also be limited to one judicial appeal, to be filed within 18 months of conviction. Users would be sentenced to two days of public service a week for a year (four-days per week for second-time offenders).

Such overheated rhetoric and draconian penalties obscure a number of facts relevant to revising the national drug policy. For starters, dealers and users already face severe sanctions. Indeed, roughly 60 percent of all federal prisoners and 20 percent of all state inmates are serving time for drug-related crimes. And drug offenders, thanks to a plethora of mandatory-minimum laws, are precisely the sort of prisoners who end up doing hard time. In 1992, the average federal drug sentence length was 82 months, up from 47 months in 1980.

Second, the demand for "illicit" drugs, that is, illegal drugs seems to exist independent of supply and legal prohibition (which the Speaker, as no stranger to American history, must recognize is largely responsible for the violence associated with drug dealing). Despite massive interdiction efforts, drugs remain readily available to most people who want them.

Still, over the past 20 years or so, drug use has pretty much declined across the board, with the major downward spike coming before the Reagan-era War on Drugs was mobilized. As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports in the 1995 edition of its National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Main Findings 1992, "The central finding of the 1992 NHDSA is the continued overall decline in the use of illicit drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes by…the 206 million Americans who were civilian, noninstitutionalized, and age 12 years or older in 1992. This broad ebbing of substance use has been in progress since the late 1970s/early 1980s, steadily reversing the rising tides recorded in earlier data." The fact that demand for both legal and illegal drugs has declined suggests that individuals make use decisions quite apart from government's view on the matter.

And, indeed, on some level Gingrich recognizes the moral and pragmatic limits of any possible governmental War on Drugs. Even as he pushes for an escalation of the conflict in terms of cops deployed, dollars spent, and civil liberties curtailed, he cites the need to win the hearts and minds of combatants.

"Victorian England," says Gingrich, "changed the whole momentum of their society. They didn't do it through a new bureaucracy; they did it by re-establishing values, by moral leadership, and by being willing to look at people in the face and say, `You should be ashamed when you get drunk in public. You ought to be ashamed if you're a drug addict'….I think moral force matters."

Gingrich's view of 19th century England is debatable–as is his consistent characterization of drug users as children and/or addicts. But it's clear that this second course of action is preferable in a country that has supposedly repudiated "bigger government and bureaucracies." After all, as the Speaker puts it, you should be able to decide "how you should spend your money" and by extension, how you choose to live your life.