The Blog

Desert Trail

On the stump in Nevada.

11:00 PM, Jan 16, 2008 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Henderson, Nevada

AFTER THE DEBATE last night, Hillary Clinton held a rally at Desert Pines High School in suburban Las Vegas. It was a sizable event with more than a thousand people packed into the gym, even at 9:00 at night.

Clinton emerged, flanked on stage by 21 women (and no men). Chelsea was there, as was the campaign's omnipresent Ann Lewis. She was introduced by America Ferrera, the star of the ABC show Ugly Betty, which is adapted from a Colombian soap-opera called Betty la Fea (if her other teen celebrity endorser, Amber Tamblyn was there, I didn't see her). To complete the pander, Clinton scrapped her usual intro music and emerged to a song that sounded very much like the work of Gloria Estefan.

The crowd went wild for Clinton, though. She gave an energetic speech, even shouting at times--a marked departure from the more sedate tone she usually employs. She echoed her tearful New Hampshire moment by reminding the crowd that "Politics for me is not a game." She adapted her speech for the Las Vegas crowd by including the housing crisis, noting that Nevada leads America in foreclosure rates. And she even made another wry reference to John Edwards as the "son of a mill worker."

ON WEDNESDAY MORNING, Barack Obama appeared in Henderson, Nevada, in a small ballroom attached to the city's convention center. Five hundred chairs were set up and the room was quite full but, unlike his Iowa and New Hampshire appearances, there were actually two or three empty chairs in the back.

Obama kept to his standard remarks, not adding anything about either Yucca Mountain or foreclosures, which are the ethanol of Nevada politics. His performance is average and the crowd isn't overly enthusiastic. But after his speech, Obama does take questions from the crowd, stressing that he'd prefer to hear from undecided voters.

The questions aren't all the normal fare--he's asked about animal rights, vocational education, energy, and illegal immigration. The sixth question was about drug legalization. The questioner claims that the "failed drug war" has killed more people than all the wars in American history combined; he then notes that had Obama been arrested when he did drugs as a teenager, he probably wouldn't be running for president today. The country "has been decimated by this drug war," he says. "Will you end this drug war?"

"I am not interested in legalizing drugs," Obama replies. "But what I am interested in is putting more emphasis on a public health approach to drugs, and less on the incarceration approach to drugs."

Well enough, but then Obama went off the rails. "We have so many first-time drug offenders locked up at huge expense, instead of diverting them into programs where they can get treatment. All we do is give them a master's degree in criminality. And once they're in jail, not only are the learning the culture and attitudes of criminals, but, because they're ex-felons, they are unemployable when they get out."

The only problem with this is that there are very, very few people incarcerated for first-time drug use. According to the DEA, only about 5 percent of the federal inmates in prison for drug charges are there for possession. For instance, in 2003, 108,976 were federal criminal offenders; of these, 45,981 were drug-related; of these, only 1,845 were for drug possession (there's no easy way to tell how many of these were first-time offenders). But in any case, 1,677 of the offenders were given probation. (Numbers are from the Compendium of Federal Justice Statistics.)

The numbers are slightly different at the state level. Many states don't allow first-time possessors to be sent to jail. But of the states that do, the numbers are still incredibly small. As the DEA notes, some 27 percent of drug offenders in state prisons are there for possession. But the numbers can be quite low. For instance, a study from a few years back in Michigan showed that of the state's 47,000 inmates, 500 were incarcerated on possession charges. Only 15 of the inmates were first-time possession offenders. In the same time frame, Wisconsin had 10 people in jail on possession charges.

The move to treat the public health effects of drug use began years ago, and it's one of the brighter accomplishments of the Bush admiration. By subscribing to the notion that our prisons are full of first-time possession offenders who are being turned to a life of crime by unthinking drug laws, Obama was engaging in one of those moments of political theater that he dislikes so much.

Jonathan V. Last is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.