25th Anniversary of President George H.W. Bush’s Infamous Oval Office Speech Escalating “War on Drugs”

On September 5th, 1989 President George H.W. Bush gave a speech from the Oval Office that defined a generation (link: http://www.c-span.org/video/?8921-1/presidential-address-national-drug-policy). Declaring an escalation of the war on drugs he held up a bag of crack cocaine that he said undercover agents bought in the park across the street from the White House. It later turned out that federal agents lured someone to the park to sell crack just so the president could say it was bought from in front of the White House (the crack seller did not even know where the White House was and had to ask for directions). (Link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpsrv/local/longterm/tours/scandal/bushdrug.html)

“President H.W. Bush’s crack speech defined the irrational zero tolerance drug policies of the times that put ideology and politics above science and health,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Millions of Americans were incarcerated, hundreds of billions of dollars wasted, and hundreds of thousands of human beings allowed to die of AIDS – all in the name of a ‘war on drugs’ that did nothing to reduce drug abuse. But fortunately the country is at last coming to its senses and embracing alternatives to those failed policies.”

During the speech President Bush pledged one billion dollars for the drug war because “we need more jails, more prisons, more courts and more prosecutors.” The speech epitomized the bipartisan frenzy at the time to appear anti-drug – draconian mandatory minimum sentences were enacted, including the 100-to-1 crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity that created huge racial disparities for years to come; using federal HIV/AIDS funding to make sterile syringes available to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, heptatitis and other diseases was prohibited; a brand new agency, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (more commonly known as the drug czar’s office) was created to coordinate America’s punitive drug policies.

Yet just 25 years later the war on drugs is unraveling and seems destined for the ash heap of history:

  • Three-fourths of Americans recognize the war on drugs has failed.
  • 23 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized marijuana for medical use. 11 states have enacted laws regulating CBD oils, a non-psychotropic component of medical marijuana which some parents are utilizing to treat their children’s seizures. Two states (Colorado and Washington) have legalized marijuana like alcohol. Voters in Oregon and Alaska will vote in November on legalizing marijuana like alcohol. Voters in Washington, D.C. will vote on legalizing marijuana possession and home cultivation. Voters in Florida and Guam will vote on legalizing marijuana for medical use.
  • The Republican-controlled House has voted to let states set their own marijuana policies five times already this year (once blocking the DEA from undermining state medical marijuana laws, twice blocking the DEA from undermining state hemp laws, and twice blocking the enforcement of banking regulations that make it hard for state-legalized marijuana stores to open checking accounts and access other financial instruments)
  • Numerous states have reformed their drug sentencing laws, including California, New York and Texas.
  • Congress reduced the crack/powder disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1 in 2010. Tea Party Republicans and progressive Democrats in Congress have joined forces to reform mandatory minimum drug sentencing and reduce the number of nonviolent drug offenders behind bars (bipartisan legislation has already passed out the Senate Judiciary Committee).
  • The drug czar’s office, which once took a zero tolerance approach to drugs, now supports needle exchange programs and making naloxone (an antidote to opioid overdoses) widely available. The drug czar speaks in favor of treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue.
  • Both Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton have said states should be able to set their own marijuana policies. Other potential 2016 presidential candidates have endorsed at least some reform, including Vice President Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Chris Christie, and Governor Rick Perry.

“With Congress rolling back punitive drug policies and leading presidential candidates talking about alternatives to the war on drugs it is doubtful another president will hold a special address to talk about escalating the war on drugs,” said Nadelmann. “If anything it’s probably only a matter of time before a president uses an address to make the case for legalizing marijuana and ending the war on drugs.”