I attended my first US Senate committee hearing about 30 years ago this year. It was the confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee of William Bennett to be the nation’s first Drug Czar. The hearing was chaired by Senator Joseph Biden, the Democrat from Delaware.
The post of Drug Czar – Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to give the job its proper name – as well as the Office of Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) itself was created by Joe Biden and his colleagues in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.
People need to be aware that Biden was one of the architects of our modern drug war. He made news recently when he admitted his support for harsh drug and crime policies was a “big mistake” and that he “may not have always gotten things right” when it comes to criminal justice policy.
It’s a prime example of much too little and very much too late. It’s also just the most recent attempt by Biden to excuse his past.
In 2008, in regard to the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity that he helped create, Biden said, “Our intentions were good, but much of our information was bad.”
Leaving aside the question of whether any of his intentions were in fact good, Biden’s “regret” is really just a cop-out. The job of being a lawmaker includes getting good information, because good policies require good data. Drug warriors, including Joe Biden, failed at that.
Biden needs to apologize a lot. Whenever he gives a speech, is being interviewed or pretty much any time he opens his mouth in public, he should say he’s sorry for the bad drug laws he helped create.
People raised objections to the drug bill in 1986. I remember it well. I was working for the Oregon Marijuana Initiative (Measure 5) campaign that election cycle, so federal drug legislation was a key part of my working life for months.
There were experts available that could’ve been called upon to talk sense, but the drug war frenzy in the ’80s and ’90s was never about making good policy. Back then, Democrats and Republicans in Congress were in a bidding war to see who could appear to be toughest on crime and on people who use drugs because both parties thought that policies like that were vote-getters.
Many legislators shared an assumption that law enforcement works to stop, or at least curb, illegal drug use. Research proves that that’s not the case, research which any member of Law Enforcement Action Partnership and many others in and out of law enforcement could tell you is supported by real-world experience.
Times are changing, but back in the 1980s, the assumption that tough law enforcement worked was shared by many members of Congress from both parties. When it comes to bad drug war policies, there’s plenty of blame to go around. So how much of the responsibility for the drug war lies with Joe Biden?
Here are some of the laws Biden helped pass from 1987-1995:
- The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984: Expanded asset forfeiture, including civil forfeiture and “equitable sharing” between locals and Feds; led to massive increase in the number of people in federal prisons.
- The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986: Created harsh mandatory minimum sentences, such as the 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.
- The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988: Creation of Drug Czar’s office; established five-year minimum sentences for possessing five grams of crack.
- The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994: Accelerated mass incarceration at the state level by giving out grants in exchange for state passage of “truth in sentencing” laws.
“We were told by the experts that ‘crack, you never go back,’ that the two were somehow fundamentally different,” Biden said on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “It’s not. But it’s trapped an entire generation.”
Biden’s expression of regret for some of his drug war past may be insincere, and politically motivated, yet it is welcome because at least it’s a start, of sorts. It’s just nowhere near enough. Countless lives have been shattered and the inherent race and class biases of the American criminal justice system have been made worse and more intractable.
If Biden wants to be forgiven, then he needs to apologize sincerely and directly. Something like, “I’m sorry for the awful criminal justice and drug control policies that I supported. I was wrong.”
Biden needs to apologize a lot. Whenever he gives a speech, is being interviewed or pretty much any time he opens his mouth in public, he should say he’s sorry for the bad drug laws he helped create. Then maybe we can talk about the former vice president’s possible run for the White House in 2020.
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