How Charlie Rangel's Outrage Shifted From Drugs to Drug Penalties


Reading Mike Riggs' recent post about the future of marijuana reform in Congress, I was struck by the quote from Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), which suggests how dramatically his drug policy views have changed in the last few decades:

Marijuana decriminalization is an issue that will undoubtedly become more prevalent over time. Things are very different from when I chaired the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control back in the 1980s. Polls have shown that since October 2011, at least 50 percent of Americans favor legalization at the federal level—a number that is on the rise.

The U.S. already has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We lock up the majority of inmates for non-violent drug-related crimes. Instead of attacking the consumers, we should give them alternatives to poverty and street life to steer them away from drug abuse in the first place. It simply doesn't make sense to waste billions of dollars putting hundreds of thousands of Americans in prison for non-violent offenses of the law.

Back in the 1980s, by contrast, Rangel was such a hardline drug warrior that he accused Ronald Reagan of being soft on the issue (although, like our current drug czar and the senior senator from California, he had kind words for the first lady's "Just Say No" campaign). In 1989 Ebony profiled Rangel as "The Front-Line General in the War on Drugs." "We need outrage!" he told the magazine. "I don't know what is behind the lackadaisical attitudes towards drugs, but I do know that the American people have made it abundantly clear: They are outraged by the indifference of the U.S. government to this problem." Ebony reported that Rangel also was"outraged that there has even been debate on the possibility of legalizing drugs, which, he says, would be 'moral and political suicide.'" As recently as 1998, Rangel was still saying "the very idea of legalizing drugs in this country is counterproductive," asserting that "legalization of drugs would be a nightmare…in minority communities." Unlike prohibition?

Not surprisingly, Rangel was keen on severe punishments for drug dealers. He backed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which established the mandatory minimum sentences that have helped give us "the highest incarceration rate in the world." In a 1991 Firing Line debate, he told William F. Buckley, "We should not allow people to be able to distribute this poison without the fear that maybe they might be arrested and put in jail." Even while arguing that "the criminal justice system is not working," he recommended a mandatory life sentence for anyone who sells drugs to a minor.

I vividly remember arguing with Rangel at a drug policy seminar in Maryland around this time. Although I certainly did not expect him to agree with the libertarian position on drug prohibition, I was surprised by his refusal to concede that trying to prevent consensual transactions between adults raises Fourth Amendment issues and by the vehemence of his opposition to methadone-based heroin treatment, which put him to the right of Richard Nixon, often identified as the author of the modern-day war on drugs.

For all I know, Rangel still has a bee in his bonnet about methadone treatment (which I also have problems with, for somewhat different reasons). But like other black leaders, he has had second thoughts about mandatory minimums. In a 2007 Huffington Post op-ed piece, he wrote:

The sudden, frightening epidemic of a new street drug—crack cocaine—and the drug induced death of basketball star Len Bias in 1986—impelled besieged lawmakers to enact stiff punishments for crack cocaine offenses, including long mandatory minimum jail sentences. Instead of reducing drug addiction and crime, those laws—however well-intentioned, swelled prison populations, created a sentencing divide that victimized young Black men, left a generation of children fatherless, and drove up the costs of a justice system focused more on harsh punishment than rehabilitation.

Rangel was a little too quick to excuse his own complicity in establishing the draconian sentences he now decries. Crack "impelled" him, a "besieged" and "well-intentioned" legislator, to support those absurdly harsh penalties? But to his credit, Rangel has tried to rectify his error: For the last five years or so, he has sponsored legislation aimed at eliminating the senseless sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and cocaine powder, which was created by the Rangel-supported Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Congress has not gone that far yet, although two years ago it shrank the gap substantially. Rangel touts his sentencing reform bill on his website, where he says "we should focus our law enforcement efforts away from drug addicts and small-time dealers onto the big-time drug kingpins who supply them."

Those are not exactly the words of a legalizer. But last summer Rangel co-sponsored the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011, a bill introduced by Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.) that would eliminate federal criminal penalties for production, distribution, and possession of the drug, leaving the states free to address the issue as they see fit. He explained his "proud" support for the bill as part of his effort to "seriously re-examine our draconian sentencing policies for drug-related crimes."

Are these shifts based on a genuine change of heart or a sense of which direction the political winds are blowing (especially, perhaps, in Rangel's Harlem district, where he faces a tough re-election battle this year)? A little of both, I suspect. Even corrupt old hacks have pangs of conscience from time to time. 

More on Rangel here.