Another Reagan Legacy: Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences

Yesterday we noted with sympathy the passing of former President Ronald Reagan. As his deification by the media and the right continues today, we thought we'd point out three of his less-than-endearing legacies:

  • Mandatory minimum drug sentences in 1986. This was the first time Congress passed mandatory minimum sentences since the Boggs Act in 1951.
  • Federal sentencing guidelines: Under this new method of sentencing which went into effect in 1987, prison time is determined mostly by the weight of the drugs involved in the offense. Parole was abolished and prisoners must serve 85% of their sentence. Except in rare situations, judges can no longer factor in the character of the defendant, the effect of incarceration on his or her dependents, and in large part, the nature and circumstances of the crime. The only way to receive a more lenient sentence is to act as an informant against others and hope that the prosecutor is willing to deal. The guidelines in effect stripped Article III of their sentencing discretion and turned it over to prosecutors.
  • The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988: This law established a federal death penalty for "drug kingpins." President Reagan called it a new sword and shield in the escalating battle against drugs, and signed the bill in his wife's honor:

President RONALD REAGAN: (From 1988) Nancy, for your tireless efforts on behalf of all of us, and the love you've shown the children in your Just Say No program, I thank you and personally dedicate this bill to you. And with great pleasure, I will now sign the Anti-Drug...

Did the law nab Pablo Escobar? No. The law's first conquest was David Ronald Chandler, known as "Ronnie." Ronnie grew marijuana in a small town in rural, northeast Alabama. About 300 pounds a year. Ronnie was sentenced to death for supposedly hiring someone to kill his brother-in-law. The witness against him later recanted. Clinton commuted Chandler's death sentence to life. (Source: NPR, 4/2/01, available on Lexis.com)

While we agree Nancy Reagan is to be lauded for her caretaking of her husband the past ten years, we must also point out that she is responsible for the "Just Say No" campaign against drugs, which ultimately deteriorated into a punchline. Remember this famous quote?

Mrs. NANCY REAGAN: (From September 14, 1986) Not long ago in Oakland, California, I was asked by a group of children what to do if they were offered drugs. And I answered, 'Just Say No.' Soon after that those children in Oakland formed a Just Say No Club and now there are over 10,000 such clubs all over the country.

As a result of these flawed drug policies inititiated by then President Reagan, (and continued by Bush I, Clinton and Bush II,) the number of those imprisoned in America has quadrupled to over 2 million. These are legacies we are still fighting today. You can help. Support FAMM, Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Even George Shultz, Ronald Reagan's former secretary of state, acknowleged in 2001 that the War on Drugs is a flop. (MacLeans, 5/7/01, available on Lexis.com)

In Smoke and Mirrors, Dan Baum, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, provides a detailed account of the politics surrounding Reagan's war on drugs. From the Atlantic Monthly, April, 1997 (available on Lexis.com)

Conservative parents' groups opposed to marijuana had helped to ignite the Reagan Revolution. Marijuana symbolized the weakness and permissiveness of a liberal society; it was held responsible for the slovenly appearance of teenagers and their lack of motivation. Carlton Turner, Reagan's first drug czar, believed that marijuana use was inextricably linked to "the present young-adult generation's involvement in anti-military, anti-nuclear power, anti-big business, anti-authority demonstrations." A public-health approach to drug control was replaced by an emphasis on law enforcement. Drug abuse was no longer considered a form of illness; all drug use was deemed immoral, and punishing drug offenders was thought to be more important than getting them off drugs. The drug war soon became a bipartisan effort, supported by liberals and conservatives alike. Nothing was to be gained politically by defending drug abusers from excessive punishment.

Drug-control legislation was proposed, almost like clockwork, during every congressional-election year in the 1980s. Election years have continued to inspire bold new drug-control schemes. On September 25 of last year Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich introduced legislation demanding either a life sentence or the death penalty for anyone caught bringing more than two ounces of marijuana into the United States. Gingrich's bill attracted twenty-six co-sponsors, though it failed to reach the House floor. A few months earlier Senator Phil Gramm had proposed denying federal welfare benefits, including food stamps, to anyone convicted of a drug crime, even a misdemeanor. Gramm's proposal was endorsed by a wide variety of senators-including liberals such as Barbara Boxer, Tom Harkin, Patrick Leahy, and Paul Wellstone. A revised version of the amendment, limiting the punishment to people convicted of a drug felony, was incorporated into the welfare bill signed by President Clinton during the presidential campaign. Possessing a few ounces of marijuana is a felony in most states, as is growing a single marijuana plant. As a result, Americans convicted of a marijuana felony, even if they are disabled, may no longer receive federal welfare or food stamps. Convicted murderers, rapists, and child molesters, however, will continue to receive these benefits.

Another Reagan legacy: He nominated conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy, as well as Sandra Day O'Connor, to the Supreme Court and appointed William Rehnquist as Chief Justice.

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