Each major presidential candidate has a lot to say about their positions on health care, jobs and foreign policy, but one crucial issue is missing from the debate: drugs and America's seemingly never-ending war on drugs. At a time when nearly half of federal inmates are drug offenders and 50 percent of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana, reform advocates say politicians are more out of step with voters on drug policy than any other issue. Candidates have largely ignored drug policy on the campaign trail, and recent online videos show several candidates, including President Obama, dodging the issue. During the next week, Truthout will fill the information void with an in-depth look at each major presidential candidate's positions and track records on drugs and the drugs war, starting with Mitt Romney.
In January, a group of activists with Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) attended campaign events in New Hampshire. Armed with video cameras and some simple questions about drugs and the drug war, the activists attempted to put drug policy on the campaign agenda by confronting each Republican candidate to find out where they truly stand. No candidate was more elusive than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
"Romney is so incredibly scripted, it's really horrifying," said Irina Alexander, an SSDP board member who asked the candidates about drugs. "With Romney especially, he just didn't even know what to say. When I would somehow slip in there and get a question in, he would avoid the question, or stumble or say something that didn't answer the question at all."
When Alexander asked Romney if he was in favor of arresting medical marijuana patients, Romney apparently misheard her at first, and then said, "I'm in favor of having the law not allow legal marijuana."
Romney has said he opposed medical marijuana in the past and said he would not change federal law, which technically considers all marijuana illegal, including the medical weed available in 12 states.
As Governor of Massachusetts, Romney vetoed legislation in 2006 that legalized non-prescription sales of clean syringes for adults 18 years and older. Nearly every state in the union allows syringes to be bought at pharmacies without a prescription, and the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and a large body of research recognizes that allowing drug addicts access to clean syringes stems the spread of hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS and lowers public health costs. Romney's administration, however, did not want to approve legislation that would facilitate drug use. The Massachusetts legislature overrode his veto.
Romney on the International Drug War
When Alexander asked Romney if the drug war was working, Romney said it's "a long question" that could not be answered on the spot (he was walking a photo line) and told her to check out his web site.
Romney's web site does not have any information on domestic drug policy, and a 43-page white paper his foreign policy platform posted online devotes only two paragraphs to vague plans for expanding international cooperation to combat narco-terrorists and drug cartels in Latin America.
SSDP confronted Romney again, this time asking if "we are winning or losing the drug war in Mexico?" Romney did not answer the question, but said, "We got to stop the demand here in this country."
In his few campaign statements on the topic, Romney has blamed domestic drug users for contributing to the international drug war that has claimed at least 45,515 lives in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon declared a war on drug cartels five years ago.
In a January 24 address to the Hispanic Leadership Network in Miami, Romney mentioned getting tough on cross-border crime, but quickly switched to educating America's youth about drug use.
"I hope they understand, that if they take one of these drugs that are being smuggled into this country, that they're partially responsible for deaths," Romney said. "I want them to understand that tens of thousands of people are being killed by virtue of drug use in this country ... If I am president, I will campaign in a very aggressive way to our young people - stop taking drugs because you are killing people."
Federal officials estimated in 2009 that 21.8 million Americans are regular drug users, with marijuana being a vast majority of user's substance of choice. That's a lot of people to convince that quitting drugs will save lives in other countries like Mexico, where economic inequality, violent gangs and a corrupt justice system is often blamed for the rampant drug violence.
Romney has not provided any details about how he would keep the youth from contributing to the drug war, but his statements bring to mind Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE. Some Americans can remember taking DARE classes in fifth and sixth grades, and the program continues in some schools today despite widespread criticism. In 2003, the US Government Accounting Office reviewed six long-term evaluations of the DARE program and found "no significant difference" in illicit drug use among students who took DARE classes and those that did not.
Romney's "An American Century" white paper on foreign policy makes vague proposals to ramp up the drug war. If elected, Romney promises to create the Hemispheric Joint Task Force on Crime and Terrorism, which would coordinate intelligence and enforcement among all regional allies. (Romney's plan for Latin America also includes a broad campaign that would promote globalized free trade and "draw a stark contrast between free enterprise and the ills of the authoritarian socialist model offered by Cuba and Venezuela," suggesting that Romney's "regional allies" may only include those countries that accept trade agreements with the US.)
Since 2008, the Congress has appropriated $1.5 billion to help Mexico fight the drug war, and the Obama administration recently reduced annual funding and shifted from supplying law enforcement equipment like helicopters to funding institutional reform efforts. Romney, however, would push beyond current drug war agreements and wants both governments to explore "military-to-military training cooperation and intelligence sharing similar to practices that were successful in combating cartels and narco-terrorist networks in Colombia," according to the white paper.
US intervention in Columbia, which cost $7.3 billion over the past decade and funded an violent counterinsurgency effort against cocaine producing rebels, is one of the international drug war's biggest controversies, and its success is certainly up for debate as tons of cocaine continue to flow north from the country. Romney's brief policy statements carry a Clinton-era confidence in quasi-militarized intervention, but some leaders want the US to move on.
"We can no longer ignore the extent to which drug-related violence, crime and corruption in Latin America are the results of failed drug war policies," said former Colombian President César Gaviria after the Global Commission on Drug Policy declared the global war on drugs a "failure" last year.
International leaders such as former Secretary of State George Shultz, former UN Secretary Kofi Annan and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo joined Gaviria on the global drug commission, which asked countries like the US to focus on decriminalization and drug treatment instead of fighting violent cartels and creating demand with prohibition.
"Now is the time to break the taboo on discussion of all drug policy options, including alternatives to drug prohibition," Gaviria said.
Don't expect Romney to break that taboo anytime soon.