Since President Obama’s re-election, it has been said the GOP could be on the verge of irrelevance, mainly because of changes in demographics and attitudes among the young.
Yet a new generation of market-minded conservatives could quickly bring the GOP back among young and minority voters if they have the courage to consistently apply their limited-government principles to the drug war.
It should be telling to conservatives that liberal Democrats such as Obama and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., are among the most reliable pro-drug-war politicians on the national scene.
Despite promises to the contrary on the 2008 campaign trail, Obama has ramped up federal raids on state medical marijuana dispensaries, surpassing those ordered by President George W. Bush. More recently, as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton shot down Latin American leaders’ suggestion that drug decriminalization be put on the table.
The United Nations has warned the Obama administration that Colorado and Washington, both of which recently legalized marijuana for recreational use, were acting in deliberate defiance of international law and that the administration has a duty to uphold multinational treaties.
These should all have been perfect opportunities for the GOP to demonstrate to young and minority voters that federalism and limited government are principles that apply across the board. Yet instead of seizing the moment and standing up for federalism, Republicans have been silent, choosing to cast their lot with a demonstrably failed policy.
Conservatism is supposed to integrate the wisdom of history into modern affairs. The most reliable guide to good policy, conservatives hold, is not abstract theory but the lessons of experience.
Richard Nixon launched the “war on drugs” with the intention of eliminating the scourge of drug use. Seven presidents, millions of jailed drug users and hundreds of billions of dollars later, we are no closer to eliminating drug use than we were to eliminating alcohol use during Prohibition.
In fact, evidence indicates that marijuana use is on the rise in recent years among high school students. There is no evidence that imprisoning drug users will lead to reduced availability on the streets.
Meanwhile, new recreational drugs (think “bath salts”) are being synthesized faster than Congress can criminalize them. Can there be any doubt that Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey was right when he declared the drug war a failure?
Opposing the failed drug war would give the Republican Party a historic opportunity to recapture not only a large percentage of the youth vote, but some of the black vote, too. The drug war has been devastating for the black community.
Despite comprising only 12 percent of the population, blacks make up 62 percent of those sent to state prisons for drug offenses. Black men are sent to prison for drug offenses at 13 times the rate of white men.
This is “big government” at its worst and most discriminatory. Where are big government’s supposed opponents when racial minorities need them? Republicans should stand up for the black community and call for an end to the failed drug war.
This does not mean giving the thumbs-up to drug use. There can be no doubt that recreational drug use can ruin lives. However, a felony conviction can be even more devastating.
Does anyone think jailing a father who responsibly uses marijuana does him, his economic prospects, or his family any good? The president of the United States is a former recreational marijuana user, even publicly thanking his pot-smoking buddies in his high school yearbook. Does anyone think that the course of Barack Obama’s life would have been improved by an arrest when he was young?
Statistical evidence linking drug decriminalization to reduced drug-related societal damage abounds. Slightly more than a decade ago, Portugal decriminalized all drugs, choosing instead to treat the matter as a public health concern. The result has been a staggering 50 percent decrease in the estimated number of addicts, as well as declining rates of overall drug use and drug-related diseases.
This makes sense. Most people avoid a drug like heroin not because it is illegal, but because it is incredibly risky to consume. Few people, in other words, would ever try heroin, regardless of its legal status.
However, it is far better for help to be openly available for those who do try the drug. When we treat the situations that lead to drug use as health issues and not a criminal matter, we eliminate hesitation to come forward for help — and thus, the length, severity and damage of addiction.
Conservatives used to argue that the federal government cannot fix cultural problems through social-engineering legislation. That argument was right, and the results of the drug war are living proof of it. It is time for the Republican Party to take the lead in ending this failed policy.
Kavon W. Nikrad is an opinion columnist and conservative blogger, and was a 2011-12 Policy Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.