Keep questioning Bush about drugs

August 29, 1999|By JOE CONASON

WITH HIS nebulous response to the question of whether he has ever used illegal narcotics, George W. Bush may be doing the nation a great service.

The spectacle of the current feeding frenzy is as ugly as always -- but for once the "politics of personal destruction" may encourage an overdue debate about real public policy issues:

Are the laws that send thousands of people to prison every year for drug possession administered fairly? Is justice served by incarcerating young, nonviolent drug offenders? Should the courts mandate treatment rather than imprisonment for people who make the kind of "mistake" that the Republican front-runner has now all but admitted?

If and when the Texas governor reaches the confessional stage of his campaign crisis, someone ought to ask him why he believes a 14-year-old Houston slum kid should do time in an adult facility for the same "crime" that had no legal consequences at all for the wealthy, white and well-connected Texas governor.

Answering honestly would require Mr. Bush to acknowledge one of the uglier aspects of the bipartisan "war on drugs." Like other kinds of wars, the casualties of this endless conflict are heavily concentrated among those who lack money, influence and social standing. Class will tell, as the saying used to go in places like Kennebunkport.

And what class tells us is that rich drug abusers get treatment and sympathy, while the poor get prison and scorn. The social disparities in the punishment of drug offenders are aptly illustrated by two cases: one that is statistically valid, and another that is simply real.

Uneven justice

First, let's consider the typical drug defendant, who as we all know is likely to be a young, jobless male high school dropout. A disproportionate number also are black or Latino. The average sentence for narcotics possession meted out to this typical defendant is roughly four years behind bars, according to Justice Department statistics.

Upon conviction, the prospects for this typical offender are poor, since he is unlikely to receive treatment and will eventually emerge into society with a criminal record that leaves him pretty much unfit for any kind of work except the criminal conduct that sent him to prison in the first place.

Now let's examine the contrasting case of a more fortunate druggie -- a prominent Reaganite not altogether unlike the current Republican presidential front-runner. Lawrence Kudlow, the conservative Ivy League-educated son of a rich New Jersey businessman, once served as chief economist for the Office of Management and Budget during the Reagan administration.

Later, he earned $1 million a year at the investment house of Bear Stearns. He was also a cocaine addict who checked into the Hazelden clinic in 1995, after he blacked out and his third wife threatened to divorce him.

After successful treatment, the reformed Mr. Kudlow has told his sad story on television and returned to the good graces of his fellow Republicans. He currently advises the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee on tax and budget policy, no doubt urging big cuts in domestic spending (including publicly funded drug-treatment programs for those who can't afford Hazelden or the Betty Ford Clinic).

In short, Mr. Kudlow has benefitted from liberal attitudes toward drug abuse, which prescribe medicalization rather than criminalization. Among his Republican peers, however, that kinder, gentler approach is considered too lenient to be applied to the poor.

This is where Mr. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" confronts rude reality. Judging from his past remarks and present policies, it is clear that he doesn't extend much compassion to the young and foolish who fool around with drugs.

Running for governor in 1994, he mocked incumbent Democrat Ann Richards' suggestion to increase treatment programs in the Texas correctional system. "Incarceration is rehabilitation," he said, insisting that the state should spend more money on jails, not treatment for juvenile offenders.

That is why Mr. Bush deserves to be interrogated about cocaine and marijuana every day until he stops thumbing his nose and coughs up a true and comprehensive answer.

Prosecuting the have-nots

He needs to be asked not only what drugs he used in the distant past, but also how he justifies his Draconian approach to drug use today. Nor should the Democrats running for president -- both of whom have admitted smoking pot years ago -- escape similar moral scrutiny.

All of them must tell us why anyone should languish in prison for doing what these candidates for commander-in-chief have admitted doing themselves.

Joe Conason wrote this for Salon, an online magazine.

Pub Date: 8/29/99

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