John McCain does a lot of town hall meetings, and he's usually quite pleased to get questions from law enforcement officers, firefighters, and military personnel. Sunday evening at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, NH, may have provided an exception.
It would be an understatement to observe that this was not the usual question: "I've served here in my state as a law enforcement officer for going on 9 years now, and after nine years working the street, I've come to the conclusion that the War on Drugs is a terrible failure... I have seen firsthand that the War on Drugs causes crime, it causes children to have access to drugs easier, and it does nothing to curb the problem of drug abuse. Just like Alcohol Prohibition after the the 18th Amendment passed, the country wised up and we passed the 21st Amendment which curbed the violence problem in this country greatly. What is it going to take for powerful politicians such as yourself to realize that the War on Drugs is a failure and we need to... we need to get smart about drugs, not tough. We need to be smart."
McCain responded: "Thank you, sir. It's going to take a lot before I adopt your viewpoint."
This drew some laughs and scattered applause from the crowd. But it was only the beginning of a three minute answer.
McCain rested the first part of his rationale for the War on Drugs on the pharmacological differences between alcohol and drugs. He claimed that most experts agree alcohol is fundamentally different in that only alcohol can be moderately consumed.
The senator did say he would support a small increment of reform. "I will agree with you to this extent, that too often we put first-time drug users in prison," he said, and was quickly interrupted by applause from a smattering of college students.
This drew a smile and a joke from McCain, who then went on to say he supports a program in Arizona that gives first-time offenders a treatment option. McCain said such a program should be implemented nationally.
"We have too many first-time drug offenders in prison," he repeated. "I think we all know that."
But McCain cited policy experiments in Europe which he said were a failure, and he said the U.S. should work with Mexico to do continuing battle with drug cartels.
"I will do whatever I can to help you combat these drug dealers, these terrible people who prey on America," he told the officer.
The New Hampshire police officer questioning McCain was Bradley Jardis, a speaker with the organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (L.E.A.P.). Jardis rocked the boat earlier this year when he testified in favor of ending Marijuana Prohibition before New Hampshire legislators. He says he enforces the laws because it's his job to do so, but he feels it is his duty as a citizen to speak out against a policy which he says needlessly destroys lives.
McCain then directed a question at Jardis, continuing the exchange:
McCain: I just want to ask one other thing. Do you think methamphetamine ought to be legal?
Jardis: I think what we need to look at is the drug policy.
McCain: Yeah, but you know, it's one thing to talk about policy. It's another thing to talk about specifics, and with all due respect, do you think methamphetamine ought to be made legal?
Jardis: I don't think that if someone gets caught with methamphetamine, we should be putting them in prison, period. We should be helping them. We should help people who are addicted to drugs, not spend $69 billion a year to put people in jail. If you arrest somebody, it does not solve the problem. You just said that there are drug cartels. There would not be drug cartels if we were to regulate drugs. In Switzerland they have public heroin clinics where people can go and get help with clean needles to come off drugs There's no doubt that drugs are dangerous, but our policy does not do anything to help people who are addicted. If you arrest a 16-year-old for possession of marijuana, and they get a criminal conviction, you can get over an addiction but you can never get over a conviction. They lose their funding to go to college, and no one could ever say that keeping a kid from going to college accomplishes something good. Not at all.
McCain: (interrupts) Thank you very much. I'm sorry you didn't have a position on methamphetamine, but I do agree with you. I do agree with you strongly. As I said, we have this program in Arizona that I'd like to see adopted nationwide that first-time offenders are given an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves and to have a clean record. I thank you for your service, and I appreciate the discussion, and I look forward to continuing this dialogue because I in no way... do I in any way mean to diminish the magnitude of this problem and the terrible tragedies it inflicts on America every single day. Thank you, and thank you for your service.
At the event's conclusion, Jardis approached McCain, shook his hand, and handed him a L.E.A.P. DVD to watch.