Rob Ford, Trey Radel and an Honest Discussion of Drugs

It’s time for North America to follow the rest of the world’s lead on drugs.

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Rep. Henry "Trey" Radel, R-Fla., joins Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, and GOP leaders at a news conference following a GOP strategy session on July 9, 2013.

During the holiday season, cocaine and politics go together as well as gravy on a Thanksgiving turkey. We all know about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's pitiless, yes-sir-e-I-did-what-about-it crack cocaine admission – "Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine" – and Florida Rep. Trey Radel's far more contrite guilty plea to one count possession of cocaine – "Your honor, I apologize for what I've done ... I have hit the bottom." Both Ford and Radel are still in office.

But if Ford and Radel's drug addiction teaches us anything, it's that the hypocrisy of the North America's discourse regarding drug abuse has festered into an international travesty. 

Weeks before he was arrested for purchasing coke from an undercover agent, Radel voted in favor of a bill that would require food stamp recipients to submit to drug tests and disqualify individuals who tested positive. The Huffington Post reported that similar "[d]rug testing bills have proliferated in state legislatures in recent years, and last year congressional Republicans succeeded in changing federal law so states could eventually test unemployment insurance claimants."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

While debating the amendment that would require food stamp recipients to pee in cups before receiving benefits, Rep. Jim McGovern asked: "Why don't we drug test all the members of Congress here. Force everybody to go urinate in a cup or see whether or not anybody is on drugs?" 

Congress demurred.

Ford meanwhile campaigned heavily on being tough on crime and, once in office, endorsed stricter sentences for drug violations. He was a vehement critic of Toronto's Drug Strategy – a policy initiative that sought to decriminalize certain amounts marijuana for individual use. The Toronto Star reported, "[T]hroughout his political career, Ford has consistently supported the criminalization of drug users and opposed programs that focus on prevention and treatment ... No hugs for thugs, crack pipes for addicts or clean needles for intravenous drug users. 'Absolutely ridiculous,' Ford has said. Funding for harm-reduction programs? Forget it."

It's not like European politicians are completely immune to criticism either. An investigation by media outlets found earlier this month that "[t]he use of cocaine in the European Parliament is not exceptional." The claim was made in connection to the expected resignation of Alexander Alvaro, a German liberal member of the European Parliament and its vice-president, whose blood tested positive for cocaine after the car he was driving crashed, killing a 21-year old. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the European debt crisis.]

But Europe, like much of the world, has taken a more supportive approach to treating individuals with drug addictions. Most EU member states still impose strict prison sentences and fines for dealers, but have implemented an array of alternative rehabilitative practices in lieu of lengthy jail terms for users. The EU Drug Strategy 2013-2020, recommends a "multidisciplinary and evidence-based approach" to reduce the use of illegal drugs. To carry out its mission, the policy calls for improving the effectiveness of prevention programs, expanding drug treatment centers and stepping up efforts to promote awareness but, most notably, mentions nothing about increased drug testing and lengthier jail terms as effective deterrents.

On the bright side, the Ford and Radel incidents provide Americans an opportunity to restart a discussion from earlier this year about how the country should modify the way it deters and treats illegal drug use. In August, Attorney General Eric Holder had instructed prosecutors to stop reporting small amounts of drugs in the indictments of low-level users. Holder reasoned that, "[a]lthough incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable ... It imposes a significant economic burden – totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone – and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate." Holder's announcement was a positive first step but momentum for further, more permanent reform in the criminal justice system has since stalled.

With all the talk of politicians, drugs and government spending, now is the time to take a hard look at reworking minimum sentencing guidelines for individuals arrested with small amounts of illegal drugs. As Radel (and perhaps Ford) now realizes, he cannot have his turkey and eat it too.

Drew F. Cohen is a law clerk to the chief justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Follow him on Twitter at @DF_Cohen or email him at dfcohen@law.gwu.edu.

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