(Page 2 of 4)
Another crack offender, Kenneth Harvey, is serving a life sentence for possession of more than 50 grams with intent to deliver, a crime he committed in his early 20s. Although legally required to send Harvey away for life because of two prior drug convictions (neither of which resulted in prison time), the judge who sentenced him recommended that he be granted clemency after 15 years, and an appeals court agreed. Yet Harvey, now 45, has been in prison for more than two decades. Last year USA Today reported that his family “thought when Barack Obama got elected president, they’d have a shot.”
Clarence Aaron, arrested when he was a student at Southern University in Baton Rouge with no criminal record, is serving three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole for arranging a meeting between a childhood friend and a cocaine dealer. He has been behind bars since 1993. “There’s no reason he needs to serve more time,” says Eric Sterling. “The system is rife with these injustices. Obama’s record on clemency is shameful.”
Nor does Obama seem curious about why so many federal drug prisoners are black—more than a quarter of those sentenced in fiscal year 2010, including four-fifths of crack offenders. Sterling says the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights should investigate this sort of disparity, especially since federal crack cases often involve low-level dealers and small amounts of the drug. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 35 percent of federal crack cases in fiscal year 2006 involved less than 25 grams. “There is a prima facie case that drug prosecutions are racially discriminatory, as a matter of pattern and practice,” Sterling says. “It demands inquiry.”
Obama the candidate agreed. “There does seem to be a racial component to some of the arrest, conviction, prosecution rates when it comes to these offenses, and that’s something I think we should take seriously,” he said during a 2007 appearance in New Hampshire. “That’s not a black or white issue; that’s an American issue. Our basic precept is equality under the law. And we’ve got to have a president and a Justice Department and a civil rights division that is willing to enforce the law equally.…If we’re going to have drug laws, it shouldn’t matter that you’re dealing them in public housing vs. a suburb, out of your mom’s backyard.”
“If we’re going to have drug laws...” Despite the implication, Kerlikowske, whose statutory mandate requires him to “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize” prohibited drugs, assures us that legalization “is not in the president’s vocabulary, and it’s not in mine.” Obama, by contrast, called it “an entirely legitimate topic for debate” during a YouTube town hall in January, but only after chuckling at the idea.
‘Willfully Blind’ to Science
Obama’s advocacy of a “public health” approach to drugs based on science uncorrupted by politics has amounted to even less in practice than his pre-presidency qualms about harsh, racially skewed sentences. Although he had long advocated lifting the 1988 ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs, which he said “could dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users,” his first budget kept the ban intact. It was Congress that later removed the restriction. “As far as we know, the White House did nothing to move Congress along,” says Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. “The general sense is that the administration is scared of syringe exchange’s political taint. You can’t say this administration is serious about a) addressing HIV to the best of its ability and b) basing its drug policies in science while it holds good public health at arm’s length.”
Yet needle exchange, which Obama at least did not actively resist, is probably the strongest aspect of his supposedly science-based drug policy. It is hard to see the scientific rationale for “zero tolerance” laws that treat a driver who smoked pot a few days ago (but who still has detectable levels of marijuana metabolites in his urine or blood) like someone who polished off a pint of bourbon right before hitting the road—a policy the Obama administration advocates in the name of “combating drugged driving.” And the administration’s demand for increased scrutiny of doctors’ painkiller prescriptions unscientifically ignores the evidence that such crackdowns discourage medically appropriate pain treatment, leaving some patients in agony to prevent others from getting high.
The clearest indication of Obama’s readiness to sacrifice scientific integrity in the service of prohibitionist orthodoxy is the administration’s position on the medical benefits of marijuana. Eight days before Obama took office, the DEA rejected a petition from University of Massachusetts at Amherst plant scientist Lyle Craker, who wanted permission to grow marijuana for research purposes. The request was far from frivolous: The DEA licenses private producers of other controlled substances, such as MDMA and psilocybin, for scientific use but has always made an exception for marijuana, which can be legally grown only at a University of Mississippi farm that is operated under contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an agency that is more interested in the hazards posed by cannabis than its potential benefits. Craker, backed by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), argued that the DEA should allow competition with the government’s pot farm to facilitate research by increasing the quality and variety of cannabis available to scientists. In 2007 DEA Administrative Law Judge Mary Ellen Bittner agreed. But on January 12, 2009, acting DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart overrode Bittner and denied Craker’s petition.
The incoming administration did not challenge Leonhart’s decision, and a year later Obama appointed her to head the DEA. Last March the ACLU filed a brief asking Leonhart to reconsider. “The government claims that marijuana offers no medical benefit to patients, and yet the government is simultaneously cutting off access to research material for scientific studies that seek to determine what medical benefit marijuana might have,” it said. “The result is that the federal government remains willfully blind to the possibility of scientific results that do not match its political preconceptions.” The ACLU argued that the government’s obstruction of research that could demonstrate marijuana’s therapeutic benefits contradicts Obama’s professed commitment to sound science.
Leonhart further illustrated the marijuana exception to that commitment in July, when she officially rejected a nine-year-old petition in which Americans for Safe Access, which supports the right of patients to use cannabis for medical purposes, asked the DEA to remove the plant from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the law’s most restrictive category. Schedule I is supposedly reserved for drugs that have “a high potential for abuse,” “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,” and no “accepted safety for use under medical supervision.” Marijuana is much safer than many less restricted drugs, it has clear medical applications, and no one seriously contends it has a higher “potential for abuse” than, say, cocaine, morphine, or methamphetamine, all of which are on Schedule II. The DEA’s marijuana decisions show politics continues to trump science under a president who promised the opposite.
Raids in a Time of Tolerance
Unwilling to wait for an outbreak of scientific integrity at the DEA, voters or legislators in 16 states and the District of Columbia have taken it upon themselves to legalize the medical use of marijuana. While running for president, Obama repeatedly suggested he was cool with that. Campaigning in New Hampshire during the summer of 2007, he said raiding patients who use marijuana as a medicine “makes no sense” and is “really not a good use of Justice Department resources.” In a March 2008 interview with southern Oregon’s Mail Tribune, he went further, saying, “I’m not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue.” Two months later, when another Oregon paper, Willamette Week, asked Obama whether he would “stop the DEA’s raids on Oregon medical marijuana growers,” he replied, “I would, because I think our federal agents have better things to do.”
Critics of the war on drugs were therefore puzzled that DEA raids on medical marijuana providers continued after Obama took office in 2009, even as the White House reaffirmed that “federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws.” That February The Washington Times reported that Obama planned to suspend the raids after he “nominates someone to take charge of DEA, which is still run by Bush administration holdovers.” We know how that worked out: He picked Leonhart, the Bush administration holdover who had been the agency’s deputy administrator since March 2004 and its acting administrator since November 2007. Prior to that, Leonhart oversaw medical marijuana raids as the special agent in charge of the DEA’s Los Angeles office.
In theory, Leonhart still had to answer to her boss, Attorney General Holder, who claimed to be implementing Obama’s promise to stop harassing state-sanctioned medical marijuana suppliers. “The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law,” Holder declared during a March 2009 session with reporters in Washington. “Given the limited resources that we have,” he said during a visit to Albuquerque three months later, the Justice Department would focus on “large traffickers,” not “organizations that are [distributing marijuana] in a way that is consistent with state law.”