It is not hard to see how critics of the war on drugs got the impression that Barack Obama was sympathetic to their cause. Throughout his public life as an author, law professor, and politician, Obama has said and done things that suggested he was not a run-of-the-mill drug warrior. In his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, the future president talked candidly about his own youthful drug use, in sharp contrast with the Democrat who then occupied the White House and the Republican who succeeded him. As an Illinois state senator in 2001, he criticized excessively harsh drug sentences and sponsored a bill that allowed nonviolent, low-level offenders to enter court-supervised treatment instead of going to jail, saying “we can’t continue to incarcerate ourselves out of the drug crisis.”
As a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama called the war on drugs “an utter failure” and advocated marijuana decriminalization. As a U.S. senator, he cosponsored legislation aimed at reducing the federal government’s draconian crack cocaine sentences. Unlike Bill Clinton, who notoriously admitted smoking pot while claiming he “didn’t inhale,” Sen. Obama forthrightly told a 2006 meeting of magazine editors, “When I was a kid, I inhaled, frequently. That was the point.”
Obama stood apart from hard-line prohibitionists even when he began running for president. In 2007 and 2008, he bemoaned America’s high incarceration rate, warned that the racially disproportionate impact of drug prohibition undermines legal equality, advocated a “public health” approach to drugs emphasizing treatment and training instead of prison, repeatedly indicated that he would take a more tolerant position regarding medical marijuana than George W. Bush, and criticized the Bush administration for twisting science to support policy—a tendency that is nowhere more blatant than in the government’s arbitrary distinctions among psychoactive substances.
The promise of a more enlightened, less repressive national drug policy generated considerable excitement among anti-prohibition activists. Marsha Rosenbaum left her job as head of the Drug Policy Alliance’s San Francisco office to raise money for Obama. The young senator also attracted significant support from three billionaire philanthropists—George Soros, Peter Lewis, and John Sperling—who are among the leading benefactors of drug policy reform. “I was delighted” at the prospect of an Obama victory, recalls Rick Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. “[I was] encouraged that President Obama was going to be much, much better than President Bush when it comes to drug policy.”
According to Obama’s drug czar, the president has indeed made a sharp break with the failed policies of the past. “We certainly ended the drug war, now almost two years ago,” Gil Kerlikowske declared on Seattle’s PBS station last March. Kerlikowske was referring to an interview he gave The Wall Street Journal three months after Obama picked him to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs,’ ” the former Seattle police chief told the Journal, “people see a war as a war on them. We’re not at war with people in this country.” According to the Journal, Kerlikowske’s distaste for martial metaphors was “a signal that the Obama administration is set to follow a more moderate—and likely more controversial—stance on the nation’s drug problems,” dealing with drugs “as a matter of public health rather than criminal justice alone, with treatment’s role growing relative to incarceration.”
So far this much-ballyhooed shift has not been perceptible in Obama’s drug control budgets. Even if it were, moving money from law enforcement to “treatment and prevention” would hardly amount to ending the war on drugs.
Kerlikowske’s earnest insistence that you can end the war on drugs if you stop calling it that gives you a sense of the chasm between rhetoric and reality in Obama’s drug policies, which by and large have been remarkably similar to his predecessor’s. With the major exception of crack sentences, which were substantially reduced by a law the administration supported, Obama has not delivered what reformers hoped he would. His most conspicuous failure has been his policy on medical marijuana, which is in some ways even more aggressively intolerant than George W. Bush’s, featuring more-frequent raids by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), ruinous IRS audits, and threats of prosecution against not only dispensaries but anyone who deals with them. “I initially had high hopes,” says Marsha Rosenbaum, “but now believe Obama has abdicated drug policy to the DEA.”
It would be going too far to say that Obama has been faking it all these years, that he does not really care about the injustices perpetrated in the name of protecting Americans from the drugs they want. But he clearly does not care enough to change the course of the life-wrecking, havoc-wreaking war on drugs.
Mercy for Drug Offenders
In retrospect, there were warning signs that Obama would disappoint supporters who expected him to de-escalate the war on drugs, just as he has disappointed those who expected him to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a U.S. senator he bragged about co-sponsoring the Combat Meth Act, which is the reason cold and allergy sufferers throughout the country are treated like potential felons whenever they try to buy decongestants containing pseudoephedrine. He staunchly defended the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Grant Program, which has fueled the incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders and funded the regional task forces behind racially tinged law enforcement scandals in places such as Tulia, Texas. As New York Times columnist Charles Blow noted last year, this grant program, created at the end of the Reagan administration, “has become the pet project of Democrats” because it’s “an easy and relatively cheap way for them to buy a tough-on-crime badge while simultaneously pleasing police unions.” In 2006 Obama warned that George W. Bush’s attempt to eliminate the Byrne grants (which Obama revived with a $2 billion infusion as part of his 2009 stimulus package) “gives criminals and drug dealers a break by taking cops off the streets.”
Even on an issue that seemed to genuinely trouble him—the sentencing rules for crack cocaine, which treated the smoked form of the drug as if it were 100 times worse than the snorted form—Obama seemed less than fully committed. In 2007 he told a gathering of African-American newspaper columnists in Las Vegas that as president he’d appoint a panel to study crack sentences, which are imposed on defendants who are overwhelmingly black, and issue a report “that allows me to say that based on the expert evidence, this is not working and it’s unfair.” As Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson observed at the time, that was a weird thing to say, since the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the panel of experts empowered to decide what penalties are appropriate for federal crimes (within the parameters set by Congress), had repeatedly said crack sentences were irrational and unjust. Obama also wondered whether “we want to spend all our political capital on a very difficult issue that doesn’t get at some of the underlying issues.”
In the event, the Obama administration, to its credit, did support crack sentencing reform, although it’s debatable how much political capital it spent in the process. “Attorney General [Eric] Holder really wanted to see crack reform happen,” says Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, “and I think so did Obama.” The Fair Sentencing Act, which Obama signed into law in August 2010, shrank the 100-to-1 weight ratio dictated by federal law (so that five grams of crack, for example, triggered the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as 500 grams of cocaine powder), making it 18 to 1 instead—also irrational and unjust, but considerably less so. “That was the best that they could get out of the Congress,” says Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, “and the administration worked for that.” But by the time Obama took office, there was a bipartisan consensus, including conservative Republicans such as Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and Rep. Dan Lungren of California, that crack penalties were unjustifiably harsh. The Fair Sentencing Act was approved by unanimous consent in the Senate and by a voice vote in the House. Only one member of Congress—House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas)—spoke against it.
More generally, Obama has repeatedly expressed the view that many people in federal prisons are serving unconscionably long sentences. Yet he has not used his unilateral, absolute, and constitutionally unambiguous clemency power to shorten a single sentence, even though he has not otherwise been reticent about pushing his executive authority to the limit (and beyond). Obama went almost two years, longer than every president except George Washington and George W. Bush, before approving any clemency petitions. So far all 17 of his clemency actions have been pardons for long-ago crimes, most which did not even result in prison sentences, as opposed to commutations, which authorize the early release of current prisoners. While seven of the pardons involved drug offenders, the most severe sentence among them was five years for conspiracy to import marijuana, which 63-year-old Randy Eugene Dyer of Burien, Washington, completed more than 30 years ago. As of mid-2011, Obama had received about 4,000 petitions for commutations, in addition to 900 that were pending when he took office. He had not approved any.
This is not for lack of glaring injustices. Last year a federal prisoner named Hamedah Hasan, who is seeking clemency with help from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), wrote an open letter to Obama. “I am a mother and grandmother serving my 17th year of a 27-year federal prison sentence for a first time, nonviolent crack cocaine offense,” she said. “I never used or sold drugs, but I was convicted under conspiracy laws for participating in a drug organization by running errands and wiring money. Had I been convicted of a powder cocaine offense, I would be home with my three daughters and two grandchildren by now. I have had a lot of time to think about where I went wrong, and I genuinely take full responsibility for my actions. But I hope you will see that over 16 years in prison is enough time for me to pay my debt to society.”