South Carolina is Suffering from the Drug War, but GOP Candidates Aren’t Asked to Explain Why

Posted on January 17, 2012


During the Myrtle Beach, S.C. debate on Jan. 16 moderated by Fox News, only one question about drug reform was asked – and it was only posited to Ron Paul, which is basically like asking Santorum what he thinks about gay marriage: we already know their answer and even they are probably getting bored talking about it. That’s a shame, because South Carolina is a state that embodies why drug reform needs to happen.

Other than Ron Paul, whose libertarian stance on drugs is well-known, not a single GOP candidate has a progressive stance on drug reform.That needs to be explained. Drug policy is something that candidates should be spending just as time talking about as they do other aspects of the economy because it is a crucial economic issue. If the U.S. is so broke, why are we spending money on a war on drugs that is so often preceded by the word “failed?”

But a discussion is not happening. And whenever a simple question is asked, the candidates’ answers – if they give one, as Mitt Romney has tried so hard not to – are simply more of the same: no medical marijuana, no states’ sovereignty on drug laws, and a misguided continuance of the war on drugs by “stopping the demand here in this country,” as Romney told a Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) member during the New Hampshire primary.

Now that the primary has moved to South Carolina, constantly touted in the media as the primary in which the “real” conservative (“real” in this sense meaning the one whom right-wing evangelicals will put down their bibles long enough to go vote for in November), it is unlikely any serious questions about such a pressing issue as drug reform will be asked by reporters, despite Paul’s argument on why heroin should be legal getting an applause at the GOP debate in South Carolina last year. That’s ironic because South Carolina is a state that, without exaggeration, desperately needs drug reform:

According to a South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SCLED) report, 35, 560 people are arrested for a drug offense in South Carolina in 2009. In 2000, there were less than 29,000 drug arrests, which means a 28.2 percent increase in 10 years.

Since 1990, when there was 15,585 arrests, there has been a 128.2% increase.

And since 1975, when there were 7,280 arrests, there has been a 388.5% increase.

The astounding increase in drug arrests has been followed by an exploding prison population and with it, a ballooning cost of incarceration – yet recidivism has risen and crime has increased when compared to the rest of the nation. According to the Fiscal Times:

South Carolina’s prison population tripled between 1983 and 2009. Over that same period of time, spending increased by 500 percent to $394 million, and not only did recidivism actually increase, the FBI ranked South Carolina at the top of per capita violent crime rate. With 3,200 additional inmates projected by 2014, an additional $458 million in spending would be required.

Meanwhile, as South Carolina is expected to spend $458 million on incarceration, the state currently faces a $630 million shortfall on their state budget, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

With drug arrests representing approximately 15% of all arrests in South Carolina, drug reform would mean a sharp decrease in prison costs and take a big chunk out of one of the biggest state budget shortfalls in the country. The cost of law enforcement would go down, with less man hours spent on arresting drug users. And if marijuana was legalized and taxed, that could mean even more revenue for the Palmetto state to tackle its budget.

Drug reform could also mean more people being able to work and support their families. No statistics are available for the amount of people who lost their jobs because of a drug arrest and what the impact is on families (like needing welfare assistance because a breadwinner is now locked up), but with nearly 36,000 drug arrests, it is likely that number is substantial, since, nationally,  most people arrested for drug offenses are from low-income, urban (i.e. “black”) neighborhoods, according to Human Rights Watch.

Indeed, in South Carolina, although blacks only represent 28% of the state’s population., they make up 56% of all arrests, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

Meanwhile, as South Carolina spends hundreds of millions on prohibition, 15.7% of the population and 23% of all children in the state live under the poverty line. No matter how much somebody despises drugs, it is not unreasonable to suggest whether funds used to enforce prohibition laws would be better served helping the 23% of South Carolina’s children currently living in poverty.

Despite those alarming numbers, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley recently released a budget that appears to do nothing to help the 1 in 4 children living in poverty, but does manage to eliminate corporate tax while making deep cuts in public education.

Faced with these realities, I would have liked if Romney, the sadly inevitable GOP nominee, had been pressed to explain his position on prohibition (not just asked to re-tell his “stance” but explain his position when faced with these facts) in a state that clearly does not benefit from prohibition and is actually suffering from its economic impact.

Instead, Romney once again was able to parade himself as the messianic CEO sent from above to save Americans from the diabolical Muslim socialist trying to get everybody addicted to food stamps. And so American political discourse continues.