According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control, drug overdoses have increased almost six-fold in the last 30 years. They now represent the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, having overtaken motor vehicle accidents for the first time on record.
One might expect such news to spur politicians to explore new options for drug abuse treatment, prevention and enforcement. Instead, at precisely the wrong time, extremists on both sides have taken over the conversation. Unless we change the tone of the debate to give drug-policy centrists a voice, America’s drug problem will only get worse.
Indeed, moderates have historically been key contributors to both the debate and the practice of effective drug policy. In 1914, Representative Francis B. Harrison, a New York Democrat, worked with Republicans and President Woodrow Wilson to pass the first major piece of federal anti-drug legislation in response to a surge in heroin and cocaine use.
Other moderates, from Theodore Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, made drug policy an important part of their domestic agendas. President Bill Clinton worked closely with Bob Dole, the Republican Senate majority leader, on sensible measures like drug courts and community policing. And Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is the reason there is a drug czar in the first place, having pushed the idea for years before President Ronald Reagan approved it.
So where are the moderates now? Certainly, the current political climate makes it hard to come together on any question. Republicans are too timid to touch any domestic policy issue, like effective drug prevention and treatment, that might appear to cost taxpayers more money. And too many Democrats have yet to recognize that drugs are an issue that they and their constituents should care deeply about: after all, drug abuse and its consequences affect the most vulnerable in society in especially harmful ways.
In their place, a few tough-on-crime conservatives and die-hard libertarians dominate news coverage and make it appear as if legalizing drugs and “enforcement only” strategies were the only options, despite the fact that the public supports neither.