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Drug Control Policy in Senate Republicans' Grasp
A Federal law enforcement agent carries a pile of marijuana plants seized during a raid of a medicinal marijuana club June 22, 2005 in San Franciso, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Drug Control Policy in Senate Republicans' Grasp

John P. Walters

When the American people gave Republicans majorities in both houses of the next Congress, they certainly indicated dissatisfaction with the performance of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party. But soon, the voters will ask what the Republican Congress has done with its leadership of the legislative branch.

Despite strong majorities, Republicans are unlikely to override presidential vetoes, which means Congress will have limited power to implement sweeping changes that require presidential cooperation. Redefining issues and setting forth a governing agenda may therefore be as important as enacting laws for the next Congress.

Debate is the essential element of a political order based on consent of the governed. Deliberation, oversight and lawmaking stand in contrast to rule by fiat and mere exercise of power. The Senate (partly from its particular rules) used to be thought of as the institution most associated with debate, compromise and resolution — less a political tool (as wielded by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat) and more a means to address important national issues. With a Senate majority comes Republican control of Senate committees and structures that can restore these deliberative functions on a range of issues important to American families. I recommend that the incoming Senate leadership revitalize and use one such structure: the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, otherwise known as the Senate Drug Caucus.

The Senate Drug Caucus has been used effectively by Republicans and Democrats to shape drug control policy and related legislation, including matters of foreign policy, interdiction, law enforcement, treatment and prevention.

The Senate Drug Caucus has worked with presidential administrations to track rising drug threats and give voice to public alarm that is frequently ignored by bureaucrats and elites. Occasionally, the Senate Drug Caucus has been harsh with administrations (sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly), but it was always engaged, calling officials to account for the stewardship of the public trust they held.

With Republicans taking over Senate leadership, the Senate Drug Caucus can and should be used to bring attention to the rapid rise in drug use and trafficking. Leaders of executive departments and agencies with drug control responsibilities should be called to explain policies that have blocked federal law enforcement, undermined prevention education and largely abandoned international allies in combating violent trafficking organizations.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, did an admirable job running the Senate Drug Caucus in the past, and may wish to do so again, in which case his leadership would be welcome. Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, a former prosecutor with a keen understanding of the nexus between a porous border and international drug trafficking, would make a strong caucus chairman. So would Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, who is a leader in the anti-drug coalition and understands the forces behind the transnational criminal organizations that are at the heart of the global drug trade. One of the incoming senators, finding the flexibility and wide scope of the Senate Drug Caucus an excellent basis for quickly establishing a record of leadership, also might make a strong chairman.

The impact of mistaken drug control policy is everywhere, from the emerging law enforcement and public health disaster of legalized marijuana in the United States to far-flung concerns over Afghanistan’s heroin, Colombia’s fight against cocaine, Mexico’s stability and judicial integrity faced with transnational organized crime and the security of our own border.

Establishment Washington too often forgets that while most legislative matters affect segments of the country, drug policy is a national concern, affecting public health, crime, foreign affairs, the economy and the safety of American communities. Today, that concern lacks a clear champion in Congress. The Senate Drug Caucus should be such a champion, for the millions of Americans threatened by the dangers of increased drug use under the Obama administration.

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