July 3, 2014 at 1:00 am

COLUMN

Mitt Romney for drug czar

Mitt Romney has the business credentials to oversee America's war on drug abuse by focusing on the illicit industry's cash flow, Osler writes. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

In a series of public appearances, Detroit native Mitt Romney has planted the idea that he might run for president again in 2016. He should resist the idea; that day has passed.

Instead, Romney should apply his experience and passion to public service in a different way: The Mitt Romney who founded Bain Capital and saved the Utah Winter Olympics should be Drug Czar, and use his financial acumen to destroy the narcotics trade without mass incarceration.

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney was celebrated (by Republicans) and eviscerated (by Democrats) for his vocation: building up and tearing down businesses. Regardless of how one views the social utility of this enterprise, no one can dispute that Romney is a smart, passionate, well-educated man who loves public service and was very good at what he did while working for Bain Capital.

Romney’s availability matches up with a special moment for narcotics policy. There is a broad right-left consensus that the stale tactics of the war on drugs failed miserably. It wasted billions of dollars in taxpayer money while failing to limit drug use. Meanwhile, millions of Americans went to prison, and a disproportionate number of them were black thanks to harsh new laws focused on crack cocaine. There was something to offend everyone.

The shape of our future (and Romney’s) may be embedded in our own history. In the 1980s, crack was one of two public health crises that ran side-by-side along parallel tracks. The other, of course, was AIDS.

At first, both were seen as problems caused by the moral failings of disfavored minorities: the rise of AIDS was linked to the promiscuity of some gay men, and crack was blamed on African-Americans’ supposed affinity for that drug.

Both of these conclusions were wrong, but these perceptions drove corresponding moral crusades. Then, in 1986, the paths diverged. A respected Republican and Reagan appointee, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, shamed the nation into addressing AIDS as a medical problem rather than a moral scourge. The key line in his epic report on AIDS argued that “It is time to put self-defeating attitudes aside and recognize that we are fighting a disease, not people.”

Since illegal narcotics is a business within a market, a modern C. Everett Koop addressing that task should be a businessperson. Fittingly, Romney’s work at Bain Capital focused on the part of the narcotics business we have not systemically attacked — cash flow. Primarily, we have fought narcotics by attacking labor (through arrest and incarceration), profits (through forfeitures of drug dealers’ homes and cars), and product (through drug seizures).

These are precisely the factors Romney discounted at Bain, where he cared much more about evaluating a company’s cash flow in analyzing its suitability as a target. Profit, labor, and product can all be replaced so long as there is cash flow, and it was cash flow that promised Bain the possibility of debt being paid off over time. But if cash flow and credit are cut off (and drug networks don’t have access to traditional credit), the business will fail.

Mark Osler is a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, and a former federal prosecutor in Detroit, 1995-2000.