This shocking admission came in Bast's "president's letter" in the journal. In explaining his predicament, the letter voiced doubt about the wisdom and effectiveness of the United States continuing to pursue its war on drugs.
It should be noted that the president's letter was published on April 1 and that its fictitious drama was part of Bast's annual April Fools' Day tradition. However, the letter's condemnation of the war on drugs is no joke.
The letter reads, in part: "For years, Heartland's founder Dave Padden urged me to become a more vocal proponent of drug legalization. I begged off: it's too controversial, it splits the conservative-libertarian alliance we're trying to build, it's too emotionally charged. Recent events … have convinced me I was wrong. … I guess I always knew there were victims of the war on drugs. I just never thought I would be one of them."
The letter ends with a survey that asks readers what they would do if Heartland were to forcefully advocate an end to the war on drugs: "Increase their level of financial support? Reduce their level of financial support? Leave unchanged their level of financial support."
The war on drugs has waxed and waned in various forms since President Richard M. Nixon. President Ronald Reagan vigorously resurrected the program in the 1980s, much to the delight of law-and-order conservatives, and established the drug czar position in the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Reagan's return to the issue came at precisely the time that conservative think tanks were coming into their own and exerting tremendous influence. The hard-line support of the drug war by think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Heartland Institute - an influential think tank in Chicago – provided public endorsement, cheered the effort and lent the backing of their large constituencies, their clout among similar think tanks, and provided the intellectual underpinnings to make a compelling public case for the drug war.
Now, after investing so much in the war on drugs, conservative think tanks seem to be contemplating a shift on the issue. The Heartland Institute's board of directors is debating a 180-degree turn in its position, moving away from the war on drugs and its incarceration model and toward an approach that stresses treatment, prevention and demand reduction.
For the past 10 years Heartland's board has been able to achieve unanimous agreement policy issues. However, reflecting the difficulty of making a turnabout on the drug war issue, the board is now split 12 to 3 in favor of this policy reversal. Regardless of the dissent, later this year Heartland will publish a series of articles by Dan Gardner, originally published by the Ottawa Citizen, which examines the U.S. drug war, concludes that it is a failure and suggests a shift toward drug legalization as the best approach.
Heartland is ahead of the curve, but it is not alone in recommending changes to drug policy. The Indiana-based conservative Hudson Institute last week released "Reducing Illegal Drug Use in the United States: Blueprint for a Drug-Free Future," by Edmund McGarrell and Jason Hutchens. The book acknowledges the failures of the war on drugs and suggests a new path. The authors believe that drug laws should remain intact but be augmented by heightened efforts to reduce demand among drug abusers. Hudson's Chris Mann asserts that "there are more than two sides to this coin."
McGarrell and Hutchens suggest that efforts to reduce drug use should be closely tied to workforce issues, welfare reform, restorative justice and faith organizations - all of which dovetails nicely with President Bush's proposal for federal funding for faith-based social service initiatives.
Morgan Reynolds, director of the criminal justice department for the conservative Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, is direct on the issue. "The war on drugs is almost all cost and no benefits," he says. "It is a disaster, and it has become more and more obvious, and support is eroding. I believe in 10 years you're going to see us in a very different and more effective place than where we are now."
Besides becoming a hot topic for policy analyses, the war on drugs has recently resurfaced in popular and political culture. The Academy Award-winning film "Traffic" is a disparaging and emphatic critique that lays bare the unsavory underbelly of the drug war. The recently broadcast finale of the canceled TV series "Homicide: Life on the Streets" featured a mayoral candidate who is shot for proposing the legalization of drugs.
In politics, Republicans, surprisingly, are taking the lead against the drug war. New York Gov. George Pataki is spearheading efforts to repeal the strict drug possession laws and mandatory minimum jail terms, popularly known as the "Rockefeller Laws" and regularly criticized as draconian. New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson has developed a left-right coalition in support of legislation decriminalizing the possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana. While the bill is expected to fail, it is widely regarded as a Republican watershed moment.
Some may believe that a reversal by conservative think tanks is simply a reflection of changing public sentiment and popular culture. Even if that is true, it can take years for such a shift in public sentiment to translate into concrete policies and legislation. However, when the think tanks begin to drive such a shift, it inevitably accelerates and yields real-world changes quickly.
This is because think tanks play a special role in American political life. In cases like this, for example, they are uniquely able to provide politicians with ideological cover. Think tanks maintain a constituency of like-minded people who offer politicians a forum to address supportive audiences with a radical idea - such as ending the drug war - before offering it up in the politically dangerous, steel-cage-death-match atmosphere of American public opinion.
The research and analyses produced by think tanks also gives politicians data to cite and to work with in support of changes in status quo legislation. And should the actions of one think tank trigger a domino effect (as is common), in which other think tanks quickly take up the risky position announced by the first to declare, NCPA's Reynolds notes: "It will make it safer for people to say the emperor has no clothes."
A telling example of this sort of influence is the shift toward reform in the debate over Social Security – once shunned by politicians as the "third rail of American politics." It began in the think tanks and even though the debate is now public, the think tanks continue to lead it.
Conservative think tanks have given much to the cause of the war on drugs. They have lent their considerable clout, constituencies, and intellectual and fiscal capital. The fact that these think tanks now seem to be reversing their position after decades of adamant support marks a monumental change of thinking in the conservative policy community. And while some of this radical thinking may occur in an ivory-tower bubble, the fact is that what happens in think tanks -- especially the conservative ones - is far more often the precursor to a major shift in the political winds in Washington and across the nation.
The unique ability of think tanks to provide ideological cover, friendly testing forums and intellectual ammunition for politicians virtually guarantees that as their viewpoint shifts, so will the perspectives and positions of politicians. As the debate over the war on drugs continues, think tanks like Heartland and Hudson provide a glimpse into the future of likely actions that will set the stage for actual policy changes.
The war on drugs may indeed be over, a failed enterprise, and these think tanks are drawing up the armistice while they formulate the strategy for the next, less warlike, approach to solving America's seemingly permanent drug problems.
Copyright 2001 by United Press International.
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