Thomas Ravenel: Legalize drugs

Thomas Ravenel

Former S.C. Treasurer Thomas Ravenel is breaking his silence and taking on America's drug war, saying he advocates a repeal of the prohibition on drugs and calling the government's response a failure.

"Drug abuse is a medical, health care and spiritual problem, not a problem to be solved within a criminal justice model," he said.

Prohibition is "our government's most destructive policy since slavery," he also said.

Ravenel's comments -- detailed in an opinion column running on today's Post and Courier Commentary page

-- come as he is still under three years of federal probation for the cocaine conspiracy charge that ended his political career and led to a 10-month prison sentence.

In a separate telephone interview from South Florida, where he is visiting, Ravenel said he opted to go public with his stance now because he has been studying the drug war extensively, determining that after billions of dollars spent over decades prohibition is a fruitless strategy.

"We can't afford it anymore," he said Friday.

He also hopes the celebrity of being a former rising star in the Republican Party who went to prison will help advance his position -- namely, that the prohibition of drugs helps perpetuate violent street gangs and other factors that keep people trapped in the criminal cycle.

"They're not making anybody safer with all this," he said of law enforcement's tactics.

Regulating marijuana and cocaine for adults are among his advocacy points. "Every drug dealer will be out of business in America" if such narcotics were legalized, he said.

Ravenel's position -- voiced similarly by others in liberal, conservative and libertarian circles -- is nothing new but comes from the perspective of someone who has seen the drug war from the perspective of both a politician and a user who has spent time behind bars.

"All I want to do is open up a debate," he said. "I want people to start asking their politicians questions."

Some say Ravenel's prohibition position is unrealistic given the continuing criminal nature tied to street narcotics, along with the dependency and misery that go with them.

"The simple truth is that legalizing narcotics will not make life better for our citizens, ease the level of crime and violence in our communities nor reduce the threat faced by law enforcement officers," the International Association of Chiefs of Police says. "To suggest otherwise ignores reality."

A spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy also said the government's combined anti-drug efforts are paying off without resorting to widespread legalization.

"Today, drug use in America is half of what it was thirty years ago, cocaine production in Colombia has dropped by almost two-thirds, and we're successfully diverting thousands of non-violent offenders into treatment instead of jail by supporting alternatives to incarceration," said Rafael Lemaitre, associate director for public affairs.

Ravenel, of Charleston, was elected treasurer of South Carolina in 2006 but resigned his post in July 2007 following an undercover probe of cocaine use. He eventually served 10 months in federal custody after pleading guilty to conspiracy with intent to distribute cocaine. Prosecutors contend Ravenel shared the drug with friends, including at parties in his South of Broad home, but did not peddle it.

During the phone interview Friday, Ravenel repeated statistics from numerous sources and experts he said back up his argument. Many of those stats are included in his column, as is his underlying argument that making drugs legal would take away the worst of the violence that has sprouted around them.

"How often do Anheuser Busch and Jack Daniel Distilleries have shootouts with innocent children being killed in the crossfire?" he wrote. "Of course it never happens, because these companies deal in legal commerce and resolve conflicts through the courts, not through shootouts."

Ravenel declined to get into details of his case but did say what happened to him is reflective of the drug war as a whole, saying it is a crime without a complaining witness, pursued by authorities who are tasked by politicians to get results.

He also spoke of meeting drug dealers in prison who were spending multiyear sentences, saying those extended terms were out of whack when measured against other crimes, such as murder.

He singled out marijuana as a drug that's been overly criminalized. "An overdose of marijuana will drive someone to sleep," he said.

Another point he raised is that while whites use drugs at a greater rate than blacks, blacks are bearing the brunt of the thrust in prosecutions.

"I think we're going to see a day and time in the not too distant future when we're going to repeal drug prohibition," he predicted.