A former White House drug czar is arguing that South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s proposal to decriminalize possession of all drugs will “encourage” more substance misuse.
In an interview with Fox News on Friday, Bill Bennett reacted to a roundtable discussion Buttigieg had with the Des Moines Register earlier this week, where the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate discussed how his perspective on drug policy has shifted in recent years.
The mayor said that he’s come to the conclusion that incarceration is an inappropriate response to simple possession and does more harm than drugs themselves.
But Bennett, who served as drug czar under President George H. W. Bush, strongly disagrees.
“This is crazy. This is a bright guy. I don’t agree with him, but obviously he’s a guy of some subtlety and intellect,” he said. “No subtlety here. He acknowledges the harm that these drugs do—goodness gracious, it’s incredible the harm these drugs do.”
“We have a terrible problem going on in this country,” he said in the appearance, in which he also argued that marijuana is a gateway drug. “We do not need to encourage more of it.”
During Buttigieg’s roundtable with the Register’s editorial board, he said he supports legalizing marijuana but emphasized that his drug reform plan—which pledges to remove incarceration as a punishment for simple drug possession in his first term as president—is not about encouraging drug use. Instead, he argued that locking people up people for possessing controlled substances for personal use compounds the problem, splitting apart families without addressing the public health aspects of addiction.
“I would not have said even five years ago what I believe now, which is that incarceration should not even be a response to drug possession,” he said. “What I’ve seen is that while there continue to be all kinds of harms associated with drug possession and use, it’s also the case that we have created—in an effort to deal with what amounts to a public health problem—we have created an even bigger problem. A justice problem and its form of a health problem.”
“I’ve always been skeptical of mass incarceration, but now I believe more than ever that we need to take really significant steps like ending incarceration as a response to simple possession,” he added.
One member of the editorial board asked him to clarify if that means removing the threat of incarceration for drugs like meth and cocaine, to which the mayor said “that’s right” but went on to say that “doesn’t mean legalization of everything.”
“The idea that you can criminalize addiction or the idea that incarceration is the right way to handle possession I think has been disproven by the American experience over the course of my lifetime,” Buttigieg said.
However, he caveated that while he does “believe in legalization of marijuana,” his proposal isn’t a “blanket decriminalization of a lot of other harmful substances.” Rather, he feels “that our enforcement efforts should be targeted at those who are willfully and sometimes violently profiting off of it—not at those who get caught up at the level of having a substance abuse problem.”
Buttigieg’s distinction on the word “decriminalization” is notable. The term is ambiguous, but leading advocacy groups have used it to describe policies that remove the threat of incarceration for possession—at least on first offense—particularly when characterizing the marijuana decriminalization laws that have been enacted in a growing number of states since the 1970s, even though some of those technically continue to treat cannabis as a criminal offense. The Buttigieg plan for currently illicit drugs is in line with that definition.
In any case, none of this sat well with the former drug czar, who at one point seemed to agree with a host’s suggestion that decriminalization could bolster drug cartels and then shifted into a tirade about what he characterized as the unfulfilled promises of marijuana legalization advocates.
“The legalization movement, one of the hypotheses there was that it would end the black market of drugs. With legal marijuana, the black market would disappear,” Bennett said. “The black market has grown because it undercuts the legal market by selling cheaper, of course it’s easier to hide the black market when you have legalization going on.”
“But again, why would one want to encourage more of this? Ninety-five percent of the people who would get into trouble with heroin, with cocaine, with meth, started with marijuana,” he said. “The marijuana that’s out there now is four or five times stronger than the marijuana in the 60s or 70s.”
He also claimed that cannabis “leads to mental problems, serious mental impairment, lack of focus—not good for students obviously—anxiety, and then later in life, it can lead to psychosis, and often does.”
“Sorry to be worked up on this, but this is just nuts what we’re doing here,” he said.
Photo courtesy of Fox News.