Illuminated by stage lights, the presidential candidate with the red tie at the podium earlier this week made the following impassioned demand: "Let's end the drug wars! Legalize marijuana now!" The crowd cheered wildly. Further down the stage, his opponent one-upped his plea: "We don't just need to legalize marijuana, we need to end drug prohibition just like we ended alcohol prohibition, and treat drug use and abuse as a public health and education issue, and get it entirely out of the criminal justice system!" Applause ripped through the enthused crowd again, their appetite for real change palpable.
Predictably, this was not Mitt Romney's red tie, nor President Obama's rebuttal. These declarations were made at the third party candidates' debate, moderated by Larry King, hosted by the Free and Equal Election Foundation, and filled with compelling ideas and opinions for reforming and transforming our domestic and international detention policies. Excluded from the mainstream debates, candidates Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, Rocky Johnson and Virgil Goode joined King to make the case for each of their parties, and in doing so, discussed a multitude of issues similarly excluded from the party platforms of Obama and Romney -- including mass incarceration and the failed war on drugs.
As we predicted in early September, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have prioritized criminal justice reform. In fact, they've managed - with the help of mainstream media and the debate moderators - to sidestep completely the discussion of drug policy despite its devastating and racially disparate impact on our citizens and communities, its waste of our tax dollars, and its failure to achieve its purported goals of reducing drug use. Which is why it was so refreshing to see these third party candidates tackle our failed war on drugs head on.
Culling questions for the candidates from various social media outlets, Larry King did not avoid the issue. "In what ways does the War on Drugs impact Americans? How could the effects be reduced? Is there a more efficient way to deal with the issue of drug use in America?"
Justice Party candidate Rocky Anderson made his stance undeniably clear: "The War on Drugs has been catastrophic to our country. A waste of national treasure, and [an] unbelievable human tragedy." In two sentences, Anderson managed to encapsulate what reform advocates have argued for years -- that the War on Drugs is an atrocity, and that it must be stopped. Anderson went on to cite specific egregious examples of nonviolent drug offenders receiving decades' long prison sentences, highlighting the human toll of our country's misguided approach to drug policy.
Gary Johnson and Jill Stein followed up with their own arguments for ending marijuana prohibition and the war on drugs. Stein, a former doctor, explained that "It is well understood that the health impacts of marijuana are mainly the public health and safety impacts from the illegal drug trade associated with marijuana prohibition." Science, she argued, is missing from our discussion of which drugs should and should not be scheduled by the Drug Enforcement Agency as controlled substances.
Johnson pointed to Colorado, where voters are considering whether to decriminalize the possession and regulation of marijuana, as an opportunity to change the drug policy conversation worldwide. Noting that 50% of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, he argued that we have now reached a "tipping point" in this discussion. Washington is also on the verge of enacting a law that would tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol.
Despite Governor Romney and President Obama's lengthy discussions about fiscal prudence, neither one has included such cost-savings policy proposals to cut the bloated budgets of our criminal justice system. Although many state governments have achieved successful criminal justice reforms in the last year, including Texas, New York, Mississippi, Michigan and New Jersey, the subject appears to be untouchable by the mainstream candidates now that election season is here.
After 40 years of an inhumane, punitive and costly approach to drug policy, and particularly in a time of intense fiscal austerity, neglecting to address the massive expense of our failing criminal justice system and the War on Drugs seems reckless at best.
As Rocky Anderson said last night, "We have 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prison population. We have more people in prisons and jails in this country on drug offenses than Western Europe has in their prisons and jails on all offenses. This has to end! We the American people need to come together, right, left, doesn't matter partisanship, we need to demand immediately an end to this insane war on drugs."
This sensible and badly needed approach, embraced by the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Justice Party, was immensely popular among the debate crowd last night - now it's time for it to go mainstream.