Did you know that former President Ronald Reagan turns 100 on February 6? If you didn't, you will soon -- we're about to witness an avalanche of press timed to his birthday.
USA Today went big today with the Reagan birthday story, with a front page cover article and a whole editorial page reminiscing and reflecting on the legacy of "The Gipper". Their editorial page consists of short pieces by elected officials and VIPs, from President Obama to John McCain to Sarah Palin, weighing in on Reagan's legacy.
Both Democrats and Republicans consistently pay tribute to Reagan's "optimism" and "strength". It was "Morning in America" and Reagan has an "unshakable faith" in America. There is the iconic image of a smiling Reagan with his cowboy hat. I imagine that even Ronald Reagan himself -- the actor, performer and president -- would be surprised by these uncritically reverential portrayals.
But Reagan was much more divisive than his contemporary hagiographers concede, as they conveniently overlook the growing economic and social disparities that defined his policies. I can't reflect on Reagan without reflecting on what Reagan meant for an issue very close to my heart: America's "war on drugs".
I have spent the last 11 years working at the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that believes the war on drugs is a failure and substance abuse should be a health issue, not a criminal issue. Ronald Reagan brings up different memories than those that the media portrays -- and they are not the sunny, feel-good ones that are being evoked by our elected leaders.
While Richard Nixon officially launched the drug war in 1971, his war was modest compared to Reagan's war. Reagan's presidency marked the start of a long period of skyrocketing rates of incarceration, largely thanks to his unprecedented expansion of the drug war. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law violations increased from 50,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 by 1997.
Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy made the "drug crisis" one of their signature issues and our country is still suffering the consequences of their actions. While the public hysteria that they whipped up has now subsided, we're still stuck with the same draconian, zero-tolerance policies that were implemented in the 1980s.
Who can forget Nancy Reagan sitting in classrooms and all over our television sets with her simplistic "Just Say No" campaign? It was during this time that the DARE programs were implemented in schools across the country, despite their lack of effectiveness. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, who believed that "casual drug users should be taken out and shot," founded the DARE program, which was quickly adopted nationwide.
Reagan's "war at home" was not only ineffective, it was disastrous. Upon taking office in 1981, Reagan shifted drug control resources from health agencies to the Department of Justice. It was under Reagan's guidance in 1986 that the worst of the federal mandatory minimum drug laws were passed into law. These laws included the crack sentencing guidelines that meant that someone possessing just 5 grams (two sugar packets) worth of crack received an automatic 5 years in prison. These laws filled our prisons for decades with low-level drug users.
The irony is that Reagan's own daughter developed a cocaine problem, but I don't imagine Reagan pushed for her to serve 5 years in a cage for her addiction.
Ronald Reagan's harsh drug policies not only led to exploding prisons, they blocked expansion of syringe exchange programs and other harm reduction policies that could have prevented hundreds of thousands of people from contracting HIV and dying from AIDS.
While Ronald and Nancy Reagan were demonizing people who use drugs at home, their foreign policy objectives included funding the Contras in Nicaragua who played a role in flooding Los Angeles and other cities in the United States with crack cocaine.
It's interesting that in all of the press I've read so far celebrating Ronald Reagan, I have not seen one word about his radical escalation of the drug war. No word about the exploding prison populations that continue today to bankrupt our state budgets. No word about the war on science and public health that led to so many people contracting HIV -- when the evidence was clear that clean syringes don't increase drug use but do save lives. No words about the militarization of our country, from cops in the schools to SWAT teams routinely breaking down doors.
It is predictable that the press will use what would have been Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday to reflect on the former president. But before we enshrine him as a saint, let's take a more comprehensive look past the image of the handsome guy riding a horse with a cowboy hat and a winning smile.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)
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