For as long as I can remember, the conventional political wisdom has been that elected officials, especially Democrats, can't touch drug policy reform with a ten foot pole because they'll be portrayed as "soft on crime" and jeopardize their careers. Of course, there were politicians who acknowledged privately that the war on drugs was not working and that it didn't make sense to put people in a jail cell for substance abuse problems, but they were largely silent in public when it came to actually challenging the inhumane laws. In fact too many elected officials, especially Democrats, tried to look tough by voting for harsh lock'em up drug laws even though they knew they wouldn't work.
Fortunately, there appears to be change in the air. Bucking the trend over the last month, both Governor David Paterson in New York and President Barack Obama have received public accolades for reforming inhumane drug laws.
Earlier this year, New York put to rest the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, which mandated exceedingly long sentences for low-level nonviolent drug offenses. The reforms have set in motion the re-sentencing of 1,500 low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. The new law also gives judicial discretion back to judges, who can now determine whether someone should get treatment for his addiction instead of a jail cell.
No one did more to end the Rockefeller laws than Gov. Paterson. He has worked tirelessly, first as a state senator from Harlem and then as governor, to make these reforms happen. He was rewarded with statewide and even national praise in the media for his leadership in ending these laws. Gov. Paterson is still struggling with New York voters, but it is for a wide range of reasons and the Rockefeller reforms have turned out to be something he touts when he talks about his record.
This week President Obama made headlines by following through on his campaign promise to stop harassing and arresting medical marijuana patients and their caregivers who abide by their state's marijuana laws. His break from the Bush and Clinton war on sick patients was front page news around the world. President Obama, like Governor Paterson, has received almost universal praise from editorial boards around the country, from the New York Times and USA Today to the San Francisco Chronicle and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Democrats aren't the only ones speaking out. Earlier this year, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also made international news when he said that we should debate taxing and regulating marijuana. Again, no negative consequences from the public -- and in fact, the news made Gov. Schwarzenegger look courageous and independent.
We are obviously a long way from elected officials being honest and principled when it comes to dismantling the disastrous drug war. There are still only a handful who are willing to call for a true debate on the failures of prohibition and the need for an alternative strategy. But the tides seem to be turning. Let's hope that one day soon politicians see that it is the public best interest and career's best interest to be smart on crime, not "tough on crime."
Tony Newman is the media director for the Drug Policy Alliance Network (www.drugpolicy.org)