Old-guard Republicans just can’t let go of the drug war

To be fair, much of the current momentum to roll back the excesses of the drug war has been due to the efforts of Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). Unfortunately, a recent series of stories illustrates how, for a good chunk of the GOP caucus, it will always be 1986. Len Bias will always have just recently died. The culture wars will always be raging. And the wildebeests will always be stampeding.

The first story from the last week was the House vote to cut off funding for federal raids of medical marijuana clinics. These raids in states that have legalized the drug for medicinal purposes are the ultimate affront to federalism. Keep in mind that the Supreme Court’s Gonzales v. Raich decision upholding the federal government’s power to pursue medical marijuana cases in those states turned on the same wide-open interpretation of the Commerce Clause that the Obama administration and its supporters in Congress invoked to pass the individual health insurance mandate. Yet House Republicans voted against the measure by a 3-1 margin. When it comes to suppressing voting rights, fighting prison rape or protecting an old cattle rancher facing off with a federal agency, House Republicans are all about fighting off the federal shock troops and preserving “states’ rights.” (Which is a misnomer, by the way. Only people have rights. States have powers.) But when it comes to letting sick people get some relief from smoking a plant, the federal government reigns supreme. If we need to send some battle-clad SWAT cops in to make an example of cancer patients and hippie mom-and-pop marijuana dispensaries, so be it.

The other cynical GOP maneuvers this week also involved the federal budget. First, House Republicans voted to cut funding to Obama’s pardon office. This is in response to Obama’s plan to commute or reduce the sentences of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of nonviolent drug offenders. The presidential pardon power is explicitly laid out in the U.S. Constitution. The Founders saw it as an important check on injustice. Here’s Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 74:

The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel. As the sense of responsibility is always strongest, in proportion as it is undivided, it may be inferred that a single man would be most ready to attend to the force of those motives which might plead for a mitigation of the rigor of the law, and least apt to yield to considerations which were calculated to shelter a fit object of its vengeance.”

This is exactly how Obama is planning to utilize the power.  The GOP is the party that supports sweeping executive powers for everything from torture to spying to indefinite detention to unilateral warmaking — none of of which is explicitly authorized in the Constitution, and some of which is explicitly prohibited. Yet it is here —Obama’s plan to grant mercy to people put behind bars for unconscionable lengths of time for consensual, nonviolent crimes, by way of a power expressly authorized by the Constitution — that the GOP decides to take a stand against the imperial presidency.

Which brings me to the final story. Just as the GOP is blocking funds to the pardon office and refusing to block funds to prevent federal medical marijuana raids, the party also just gave the Drug Enforcement Administration an extra $35 million that the agency never asked for. It was apparently a gift from retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) to thank DEA chief Michele Leonhart for her public opposition to sentencing reform.

In a House appropriations subcommittee hearing last month, Leonhart said the agency was “on track” after a hiring freeze and would add agents graduating from three training academy sessions this year. Wolf asked whether she could use additional funds, telling Leonhart he “would like to [help]” increase the budget. After consulting with an aide, Leonhart tossed out a $175 million figure that would allow the DEA to expand, saying the agency was only hiring one agent for every two who retired or left.

On the House floor on Thursday, Wolf suggested that House members questioning the DEA budget sent the wrong message to a hypothetical DEA agent watching on C-SPAN in Afghanistan. Wolf also gave personal support to Leonhart, saying she “has given her life to law enforcement for the last 30 years.”

“I think she’s represented the DEA well,” Wolf said. He previously defended Leonhartin a letter to her boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, after HuffPost reported that Holder had asked Leonhart to clarify a previous statement that seemed to be out of line with the administration on sentencing reform.

“I think there’s been an effort by some in the administration to attack her in a way, it almost reminds me of the Nixon administration,” Wolf said Thursday. “I was in the Nixon administration, they had policies whereby they would go after civil servants and career people.”

I guess I’m more concerned about why we have DEA agents in Afghanistan in the first place. It certainly isn’t helping our efforts there.

It probably goes without saying, but Wolf is a lifelong drug warrior. He once compared allowing states to legalize medical marijuana to allowing states to legalize the sex trafficking of children.

I suppose the good news here (at least on the drug war front) is that Wolf is retiring, whereas politicians like Paul, Massie and Lee are relatively young. The GOP’s youth movement toward a less draconian drug war has sometimes been characterized as a shift to the left. As a libertarian, I’d love to see a more culturally liberal GOP. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. Paul, Lee and Massie, for example, are all still staunchly anti-abortion, and all oppose gay marriage. This new crop of Republicans isn’t asking the party to change its principles so much as it’s merely asking the party to apply those principles consistently.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · June 2