There are good reasons to mourn the passing of George H.W. Bush. To many Americans, Bush was a decent man and a leader with integrity, a politician from a bygone era.
And Bush’s complicated legacy does include much good, from his handling of the end of the Cold War to his support for climate science and the Americans With Disabilities Act. But it also includes some bad — specifically, a profound escalation in the War on Drugs. Ronald Reagan may have reoriented public attitudes about drugs when he pronounced in 1982, “Drugs are bad, and we’re going after them . . . And we’re going to win the war on drugs.” But, it was Bush — and later, Bill Clinton — who put real resources into the effort.
When Bush took office, the federal drug control budget was around $5 billion. When he left office in 1993, it was over $12 billion. This was the sharpest escalation in the history of the drug war and it locked the country into a strategy of punishment, deterrence and intolerance. Based on instinct rather than evidence, Bush’s approach did little to alleviate the public health crisis of addiction or halt the flow of drugs to American shores. And we remain trapped within this largely punitive approach today. So while we remember Bush as a “gentle soul,” we should also remember his role in fomenting a drug war that harmed millions of American citizens, particularly in communities of color.
In a tale retold quite a bit over the last few days, one of those citizens was an 18-year-old D.C. resident named Keith Jackson, who was arrested as part of a White House publicity stunt. In September 1989, Bush astonished the American public by brandishing a bag of crack cocaine during a nationally televised address. The drug, a seemingly bemused president remarked, “looked like candy, but it’s turning our cities into battle zones, and it’s murdering our children.”
Rather than address the underlying poverty, despair or thrill-seeking that drives destructive drug use, Bush sought to wipe out the drug menace by punishing everyone involved to the fullest extent of the law and doubling down on policing. The solution, Bush said, was “more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors,” and a $1.5 billion increase in federal police spending, the greatest single increase in the history of drug enforcement.
Jackson, meanwhile, was a hapless pawn in Bush’s theatrics. When the DEA learned that Bush’s people wanted to use crack seized near the White House as a prop for the speech, they lured the local high school student to Lafayette Square, even giving him directions to get him there. An obvious setup, the case was subsequently thrown out by two juries, but Jackson was eventually sentenced to a mandatory 10 years for selling to an undercover agent in the months leading up to his fateful September arrest.
Bush was widely mocked for the incident but remained unrepentant and paid little price. That’s because the fundamental strategy of escalating the War on Drugs enjoyed widespread bipartisan support, including significant buy-in from the black political class. Politicians from across the ideological spectrum were desperate to do something about the problem of urban crime, and Bush offered an appealing solution: focus policing on public housing projects, so that children wouldn’t have to “dodge bullets on the way home from school.”
That was a noble but misguided sentiment. Policing can’t solve poverty, and targeting specific neighborhoods turned them into occupation zones where low-level dealing was one of the few viable job opportunities. Focusing on the retail end merely drew more and more people, predominantly people of color, into legal custody but did little to stem the tide — as the cops interviewed in the widely seen CBS news special “48 Hours on Crack Street” readily acknowledged — while dishing out punishment to inner city communities.
The instinct to punish drug users, particularly the poor, runs deep in American political thought, and the consensus supporting these tough-on-crime attitudes continued to harden as Bush championed the growing War on Drugs. On the first anniversary of Bush’s speech, Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates told the Senate that casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot.” This wholly punitive approach reached its apotheosis with the 1994 Clinton crime bill and its notorious “three-strikes” provision.
For Bush, however, the War on Drugs offered more than just a chance to look tough on crime. It also had a powerful foreign policy purpose. An internationalist, Bush was eager to project American power abroad as the Cold War was ending. The drug war offered up a new evil to combat and an opportunity to restore faith that America’s military might could be successfully used as a force for good.
In his September 1989 speech, Bush drew a direct connection between crime in the inner city and cocaine production in Colombia and South America. He accused American drug users of fostering instability and “paying for murder” in those countries. Pledging $2 billion in military and police assistance to Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, Bush announced, “The rules have changed,” because he was officially bringing the U.S. armed forces into the fight. Wherever traffickers operated, they could expect to be met by American power. Between the time of Reagan’s 1982 declaration of war and the end of Bush’s presidency, the Pentagon’s counternarcotics budget increased by over 100,000 percent.
Bush’s initial investment in Colombia evolved into Plan Colombia, incubated in the Clinton White House and largely hatched by the administration of George W. Bush. It poured about $10 billion into that country and created a sizable military presence. On Sept. 10, 2001, the most active CIA station in the world was in Bogota, and the country remained an overlooked theater of covert operations until very recently.
But none of that has kept cocaine off American streets, and policymakers’ attention on foreign bad guys and foreign drug flows did little to protect the country from opioids, the latest chapter in the drug crisis. We should recognize the good intentions of George H.W. Bush — all too rare in today’s political climate — but we should also learn from his mistakes: His policies at home and abroad produced a new age of mass incarceration that turned the U.S. into greatest jailer of its own people in the world. Bush’s drug war policies also deepened an impulse toward foreign intervention that has produced questionable results.
The money spent incarcerating Americans and fighting drugs would be better spent addressing the runaway capitalism, structural inequality, systemic racism and declining economic opportunity that historically drives repeated drug crises. We must break with the instinct to punish. And as we lay George H.W. Bush to rest, we should remember that sometimes good intentions produce outcomes that are more damaging than the problems they intend to solve.