Democrats on Drugs: Fair but Tough!


The Republicans' 2012 platform lumps "repeat drug dealers" in with robbers, rapists, child molesters, and murderers as offenders who deserve "mandatory minimum sentencing." In the platform they unveiled this week, by contrast, the Democrats brag about "reducing racial disparities in sentencing for drug crimes" by passing the Fair Sentencing Act. That law, which shrank (but did not eliminate) the arbitrary sentencing gap between crack and cocaine powder, is the most significant drug policy reform we have seen at the federal level during the Obama administration. While the president deserves credit for supporting it, by the time he was elected crack sentencing reform had become a bipartisan issue. The Fair Sentencing Act was approved by unanimous consent in the Senate and by a voice vote in the House. Only one member of Congress—House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas)—spoke against it. In other words, Obama did not take much of a political risk by supporting this bill. More telling: With a single exception, Obama so far has been unwilling to use his unilateral, unreviewable clemency powers to shorten the draconian drug sentences he used to condemn.

Lest the suggestion that penalties can be too severe make them look soft on drugs, the Democrats also tout "increased funding for the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program over the last four years." As New York Times columnist Charles Blow noted in 2010, this program, created at the end of the Reagan administration, "has become the pet project of Democrats" because it's "an easy and relatively cheap way for them to buy a tough-on-crime badge while simultaneously pleasing police unions." Obama is a longtime booster of the program, which has fueled the incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders and funded the regional task forces behind racially tinged law enforcement scandals in places such as Tulia, Texas. In 2006 Obama, then an Illinois senator, warned that President Bush's attempt to eliminate the Byrne grants (which Obama revived with a $2 billion infusion as part of his 2009 stimulus package) "gives criminals and drug dealers a break by taking cops off the streets." That was just two years after Obama, while running for the Senate, called the war on drugs "an utter failure." 

In the October 2011 issue of Reason, I explained how Obama has disappointed supporters who hoped he would de-escalate the drug war, especially in connection with medical marijuana, where he has delivered an intensified crackdown instead of the tolerance he promised.