Drug War

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.

NEXT: "Polish Death Camps" and "American 9/11 Attacks"

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

  1. Reason.com – Come for the Articles – Stay for the Comments!

  2. Rangel has evolved along with his African-American constituents.

    First it was, “drugs are devastating our communities and our youth, and the govt doesn’t want to do anything about it!” So they jacked up the sentences. In this narrative, the evil white conservatives and libertarians were sitting in their estate houses twirling their moustaches in glee as drug dealers preyed on the black community. And drug dealers *were* getting particularly nasty at this juncture, settling jurisdictional disputes in public places with the aid of firearms.

    Now it’s, “oh, prohibition is taking messed-up kids and messing them up even more in prison! And the police are abusing their authority!” Which doesn’t mean “legalize!” but reinstates some of the old skepticism of govt.

    Rangel obviously sees which way things are going.

    1. I don’t want to hear about Rangel’s changing viewpoint. I want to hear that Rangel will be punished for the lives that his drug laws have ruined.

      1. I’m sure that’s coming any day.

    2. Maybe one day their views on firearms for the defense of the innocent will evolve too. Seeing the CBC allied with the NRA would be interesting in the extreme.

  3. “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…”

    Hard tellin’, but at least he’s approaching the side of the angels.

    1. I wont discourage him from coming to the dark side, but I would love to see an interview where he is asked and pressed hard about his mistaken positions in the 80s.

      1. dark side == right side.

        Not sure why I typed that. 🙂

  4. MJ smokers vote? I thought they were too busy gettin’ high.

  5. Your take on this is completely wrong.

    Politicians are whores that parrot the voting public’s views back to them. Rangel’s tough stance in the 80s was a reflection of his voter’s opinion as is his soft stance now.

    Or to paraphrase Milton Friedman:
    Trying to elect the right people to enact unpopular libertarian positions is a fools errand. The real trick is to get the wrong people to enact those positions because they are popular. We are getting close to the latter.

    1. Should be formatted like this:

      Or to paraphrase Milton Friedman:

      Trying to elect the right people to enact unpopular libertarian positions is a fools errand. The real trick is to get the wrong people to enact those positions because they are popular.

      We are getting close to that standard.

  6. Well, they are called representatives. Why shouldn’t they shift with the wind of the electorate? Isn’t that their job? You don’t hire agents to deviate from what they want you to do, do you? The only difference is that it’s a collective decision when it’s politics, so there’ll always be some people theoretically being represented who don’t get the represent’n they want.

    When I ran for homeroom rep on the Community Council at HMS, I told the students I had no positions, and that whatever came up, I’d call for an adjournment and then poll them. I eventually got elected.

    1. I’m not a bit surprised.

      1. Well, seriously do you think elected representatives should, as concerns their jobs, do what they want? Or should they do what the people they ostensibly represent want? If the former, doesn’t that make them public masters rather than public servants?

    2. Ah, the warm embrace of the tyranny of the masses.

      1. Liberals are for democracy until it works against their interests, like when liberal America lost their shit when NC voted to not recognize same sex marriage.

  7. What? A politician body surfing public opinion? Well, I never.

  8. That makes a whole lot of sense dude. WOw.


  9. Rangel should strangle.

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