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May 29, 2000

Revisiting Ronald Reagan on the Drug War

In a 1999 essay Richard Allen, who had been President Ronald Reagan's security adviser, told how the former president was outraged when he watched two East German policemen stop a man at gunpoint at the Berlin Wall and poke around in his shopping bags. The president was so disturbed by the policemen viewing ordinary people as suspect that he ultimately (and immortally) advised Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!"

What a pity that the man who did so much to end the totalitarian Soviet state and who spoke so persuasively in favor of individual freedom did not witness four plainclothes cops in the Bronx fire forty-one shots, killing twenty-year-old Amadou Diallo. The East German man had ultimately been sent on his way; the unarmed Diallo, who had committed no crime, was killed in his own hallway.

What would President Reagan have thought of the Los Angeles Police pointing shotguns at minority youngsters suspected of belonging to gangs, forcing them to kneel with hands behind their heads and illegally searching them? Or of Officer Rafael Perez and his partner, who, according to Perez, handcuffed and shot unarmed nineteen-year-old Francisco Ovando, then planted a sawed-off rifle on the youngster who had never previously been arrested? Francisco Ovando was not only crippled for life but received a twenty-three-year prison sentence. He was released after three years only because rogue cop Perez finally disclosed the frame-up to try to lighten his own sentence for stealing drugs.

What if Ronald Reagan, who led the country in a revolution against government intrusion, had seen the police SWAT team gunning down rancher Donald Scott at dawn in his own kitchen? If cops had found the marijuana on the ranch, the ranch would have been sold and the police agencies would have split millions of dollars. Scott, totally innocent, died in a hail of police bullets when he picked up his legally owned shotgun to defend his family against what he believed to be a gang of robbers.

Reagan detractors say that he would have shrugged off the many thousands of such law enforcement atrocities committed in the name of the drug war, as many of Reagan's supporters now shrug them off. People point out that he had declared drugs a danger to national security. Yet we should remember that the former president renounced his early support for big government and went on to become the icon of conservatism.

It is easy to imagine Ronald Reagan viewing the unintended consequences of the drug war and saying, with the same vision and strength, "We can't make war against our own people and our own civil liberties. There has to be a better way to discourage drug use."