2008 That Queasy Feeling
posted by August 27 at 18:32 PMon
Barack Obama just claimed the nomination. And Joe Biden, as his official running mate, is about to speak. But Obama selecting Biden was a punch to the gut. Like that sickening feeling you got as a high school freshman, walking up the steps to the big party—and you’re telling yourself, if I fuck this up, my dreams are shot. But if things go well, this could be an excellent four years.
I am anything but a single-issue voter, but I’m also a die-hard zealot against the drug war. Everything that could have gone wrong has been an unbridled catastrophe: Drug epidemics and cartel routes breeze across the continent, privacy laws are gutted for sport, kids try drugs younger and younger, our prisons are stuffed with young black men…
And it’s Joe Biden’s fault.
As former chairman for the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden is the person most responsible for passing a package of laws in the mid-80s that we think of as today’s drug war. Biden presided over the mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines that required judges to sentence dealers’ girlfriends and small-time peddlers to decades-long terms in state and federal prisons, where thousands are rotting to this day.
He used hearings “to mislead his colleagues and the public… on drug policy where police, prosecutors and DEA officials got the opportunity [to speak] while opponents were kept out,” says Kevin Zeese, a former director of Common Sense for Drug Policy and a leading drug-law reformer in Washington, D.C. since the 1980s. “Pick a drug law you don’t like from the last 25 years and thank Senator Biden.”
It wasn’t just coincidence that these laws were passed while Biden was at the helm of the judiciary committee. He was the leading advocate for establishing the Office of National Drug Control Policy—the White House Drug Czar’s Office—an agency that to this day gives lip service to drug treatment programs but spends its millions on ads linking pot to terrorism. The ads actually increased drug-initiation rates among teenagers. He’s a conservative on most crime issues. And in recent years, Biden pushed the so-called RAVE Act, which criminalized everyone attending parties where drugs were found. Biden is the drug war embodied.
But, since this is Obama’s campaign, I’m trying to hope—hope that Biden can change.
“Our intentions were good, but much of our information was bad,” Biden said in February. He decried the very sentencing disparities he created between crack and cocaine, which is one of the reasons prisons are full of young black men. “Each of the myths upon which we based the sentencing disparity has since been dispelled or altered,” he said.
A change of heart, perhaps. And when it comes to the playing the old white guy card—a requisite in the run against McCain—Biden’s the king of hearts. Also, nice teeth. They must be fake. Anyway, I like to think that the folks who pushed the drug war in the 1970s and 1980s—Richard Nixon, Nancy Reagan, Joe Biden—believed that it may have worked. Clinton should have known better. But by every measure of efficacy, it’s failed.
Obama cannot alter drug laws on his own—he’s lived a youth of indiscretions. (Realistically, no politician can make any sweeping changes; it must be incremental.) But if anyone has the credibility at the federal level to say we were wrong, to push the Senate for sentencing reform, to back Barney Frank’s bill in the House to decriminalize pot—nobody is more more capable than Joe Biden. And if he does, this could be an excellent four years.