Sunday, February 12, 2006

The End of Ideology on the War on Drugs, or the Beginning of Consensus?

Regular readers have perhaps long tired of my dissertations on Texas' Tulia-style drug task forces financed by the federal Byrne grant program. (Gov. Rick Perry recently announced shifting money from drug task forces to give block grants to sheriffs in border counties.) But since I don't really track Congress the way I do the Texas Lege, it surprised me to learn how widely Congressional animosity for that program had spread to other drug war policies. According to this press release from the Drug Policy Alliance, many Republicans in Congress (rightly) see the war on drugs as just another batch of pork barrel programs to cut:
As the war on drugs continues to waste taxpayer money, destroy families, and undermine the rule of law, more and more conservatives are speaking out. The Republican Study Committee (RSC), a Congressional caucus composed of more than 100 conservative House Republicans, recently came out for eliminating a number of failed drug war programs, including the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program, the Safe and Drug-Free School programs, and the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Last year, the American Conservative Union, Council for Citizens Against Government Waste, and the National Taxpayers Union urged Congress to eliminate six failed drug war programs to save money in the wake of Katrina. Those programs included the three programs RSC targeted for elimination, as well as student drug testing grants, the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program, and the Andean Counterdrug Initiative (aka Plan Colombia).
That's an interesting twist, isn't it? I sat on a panel in D.C. last year with representatives from the Heritage Foundation and the National Taxpayers Union who both criticized the Byrne grant program, and you could tell their critique of the drug war went way beyond this one federal program.

The fascinating part about that panel was how those conservative activists, myself representing ACLU of Texas, and Nkechi Taifa of the Open Society Policy Center all came to the same conclusion - Byrne grant funding is counterproductive and has got to go -- from entirely different ideological perspectives. As recounted in this blog post, I actually agreed more with the right wingers' comments than I did with Nkechi!

These fellows were ideologues, not at all like the pork-driven law enforcement bureaucrats who pass off the drug war as "conservatism" at the Texas Legislature: Federalism, not forfeiture animated their views on the drug war. This recommendation by the Republican Study Committee confirms that those positions represent not just activists but a signficant portion of conservatives in Congress.

The signs of this shift toward a new consensus are everywhere. DPA's press release mentioned that "Maryland Republican Governor Robert Erhlich also passed treatment instead of incarceration legislation in 2004," but it could have added that Texas Governor Rick Perry signed "treatment instead of incarceration legislation" in Texas in 2003 (HB 2668). With Texas' prisons bursting at the seams, it's reasonable to expect more such legislaton next year, likely strengthening probation services to handle more drug offenders outside of prison.

I wrote last week how I was struck by Dan Kahan's argument that successful policy goals must be ambiguous to reach consensus - that different people had to be able to tell different stories to explain the outcome, to reach the same conclusion from different perspectives. That's what's happening, to my mind, on the drug war. There are now so many reasons to think our current approach is a bad idea, nearly anybody can join in the fun of criticizing it.


Anonymous said...

What was Nkechi's position?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Nkechi (and most of the Democrats, led by John Kerry and Tom Harkin in the Senate) opposed cutting the Byrne grant program. She thought that we should be pushing for restrictions on Byrne money that would divert it away from the task forces and shouldn't "throw the baby out with the bathwater." I replied that this was a "mighty ugly baby" and that we should take the opportunity of Bush's advocacy for cuts to get rid of the program entirely. In that sense, me and the fellows from Heritage and the National Taxpayers Union were on the same page.

Anonymous said...

Pete Guither at Drug WarRant had an interesting article which pointed out that almost all of the drug war programs are failing. There is a link to the Whitehouse site evaluating current federal programs ( many of the drug policies have received either an "ineffective" or "results not demonstrated" rating. Interesting to note though is the listed remedy is not to cut these programs, but to review how they are evaluated. The Byne grant is among those "results not demonstrated."

By the way, just finished the Nate Blakeshee's "Tulia". Amazing how we continue to sacrifice civil liberties in the name of the drug war.

Anonymous said...

Some 'baby'. More like some kind of movie I saw once. This 'baby' runs around like it's movie counterpart, destroying lives in it's path, minus physical claws but with almost equally destructive laws.

And given that the people most often being savaged by these laws are minorities, you'd think that that fact would be self-evident to those whom the laws most adversely affect. But there's still this idea in the minds of many minorities that if we just tweak this Frankenstein's Monster of a law juuuuuust right, it'll stop attacking the villagers, and only go after the 'bad people'.

That some members of the same minorities argue for retaining the laws intended to hurt them were seen by the progenitors of these laws as a priori being 'bad people' still doesn't quite register. Though if they click on that second link, they'll see very quickly just how the early prohibitionists thought about them.