Drug Policy and the Obama Administration: A Reason Debate

Drug Policy Alliance's Ethan Nadelmann and Drug Policy Institute's Kevin Sabet take on drug policy and the 2012 election.

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Ethan Nadelmann is Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Kevin Sabet responds:

It is clear to anyone who fairly looks at the Obama record on drugs that he made some major improvements to our nation’s drug policy. It may not be the changes that Ethan and the legalization movement may have wanted, but for people in the fields of prevention, treatment, and recovery, things like increasing support for community-based prevention, advocating for smart overdose prevention and medication-assisted treatment, and raising the profile of recovery have been a big deal. The biggest deal, of course, was the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which signaled the most significant step towards closing the treatment gap we have seen in more than 30 years. And legalization groups might not like drug courts or HOPE-style programs, which keep offenders with a drug problem accountable by employing carrots and sticks to achieve successful treatment outcomes, but they certainly work to reduce costs and save lives. Sadly, any reforms to the badly broken criminal justice system short of full-scale legalization are irrelevant for ideologues.

As Ethan well knows, no drug czar can simply take money from enforcement and put it into treatment. That is not how the drug budget works. Rather, you have to work with departments themselves to come up with innovative ways to maximize effectiveness. A case in point is how the Obama Administration leveraged dollars from national law enforcement task forces to increase prevention-enforcement partnerships.

As Ethan might not know, marijuana’s individual components—as called for by the Institute of Medicine and American Medical Association—are being widely studied by the National Institutes of Health and private industry. One marijuana-based mouth spray, which delivers a standardized dose of two of active ingredients found in marijuana, is in late stage clinical trials in the U.S. and may likely be approved very soon. Could the process for obtaining marijuana and increasing incentives for research be improved? Most certainly. But, once again, this is very different from allowing smoked, raw, non-standardized marijuana to be sold on the grey market by people with no medical background, as is the case now in many states. Even the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) acknowledges that the medical marijuana system is tantamount to legalization. It is no wonder that every major medical association has come out against raw, smoked marijuana by voter referenda as opposed to the idea of taking marijuana’s components and delivering them in a safe way through a pharmacy. Since we don’t smoke opium to get the effects of morphine, why should we smoke marijuana to receive its therapeutic effects?

I have to hand it to the legalization groups for their relentless, mega million- dollar campaigns to radically change drug policy. Their extreme policies have been nicely coated in catchphrases like “public health,” “common sense,” and “human rights.” They have indeed convinced many that current policy is so bad it cannot be reformed, and that the only alternative is legalization. Of course, we know that there are plenty of things we can and should do before we institute a policy that will result in greater addiction, crime (legal alcohol is the reason for 1 million more arrests a year than all illegal drugs combined, and the black/grey market for tobacco under today’s high cigarette tax regime is thriving), illness, and suffering.

I’m hoping that whomever is elected next month will not be duped into believing that our only choices are enforcement-heavy prohibition or legalization. We can do much better than either.

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  • SIV||

    this is very different from allowing smoked, raw, non-standardized marijuana to be sold on the grey market by people with no medical background, as is the case now in many states.

    This is what progressives actually believe.

  • SIV||

    Since we don’t smoke opium to get the effects of morphine, why should we smoke marijuana to receive its therapeutic effects?

    Why does Kevin hate 19th Century Chinamen? "We" don't smoke opium because it is much bulkier than Heroin and not distributed in a highly restrictive manner in limited quantities by state-licensed rent seekers.

  • The Hammer||

    Some of us just smoke opium.

  • David Emami||

    Since we don’t smoke opium to get the effects of morphine, why should we smoke marijuana to receive its therapeutic effects?

    Is he suggesting that people inject themselves with marijuana? Or if he means ingested morphine, is he saying that pot should only be available in brownie form? If so, would that mean we'd see ads in Marvel Comics showing Iron Man apprehending criminals by taking advantage of their weakness for delicious Hostess Marijuana Cakes?

  • IceTrey||

    Did you guys see the Frontline about Obama's and Romney's back stories? They spent at least ten minutes talking about Obama and the Choom Gang. What a fucking hypocrite.

  • Archduke Pantsfan||

    Now we're back in the fight
    We're back on the train, hey
    Oh, back on the choom gang

  • IceTrey||

    "But most importantly, people are not jailed or imprisoned for marijuana use."

    This guy just lost ALL credibility.

  • ||

    what IS true is that

    1) marijuana use is (in all jurisdictions i am aware of)... not illegal

    POSSESSION is... use is not. a not unsubtle distinction

    2) you have to work hard to get jail (in most cases prison is impossible, since it only applies to felonies) time for personal possession amounts of mj in most jurisdictions. VERY hard.

    most people in jail for MJ offenses involve either probation violation, mass quantities, sales offenses, grows, etc.

    mere possession - while it is not true to say never - HARDLY ever is going to get you jail time

  • Mike Parent||

    You'll still have a criminal record, and all that goes with it. As history has shown, it can wind up being a death sentence, putting people in the company of real criminals.

  • Beefkins||

    The difference between "possession" and "use" is academic. You cannot use it unless you possess it.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Drug use is a complex bio-behavioral disorder—a disease of the brain, not the elbow, as Herb Kleber once said.

    Who knew that drinking beer was a disease?

  • ||

    saying drug use is a DISorder is ridiculous.

    it doesn't even make sense. wtf is this guy talking about ?

  • ||

    Well fuck me, (Dr.?) Kevin Sabet just diagnosed me as having a mental disorder.

    Whoopdy fucking doo.

  • ||

    Fuck this "debate," neither side has made anything approaching an appeal to freedom. Fuck off statists.

  • Ballz||

    "Though diabetes is also chronic disease, it rarely causes crime, tears apart families, or causes a hazard on the road"

    that would be because it ain't illegal, dumbass. If it was, and I were diabetic I might have to pop a cap yo ass for dat butterfinger.

  • jacob the barbarian||

    I cannot tell which is more infuriating, declaring smoking grass a criminal activity, or a mental disease.

  • ||

    the former is at least technically accurate, if stupid as fuck. iow, the legislature can and does declare (possessing it btw, not smoking ) it a criminal activity. as stupid as that is.

    however, "declaring "it a mental disease doesn't make it so. they can declare it a fucking ham sandwich. again, doesn't make it so. i realize psychology is a soft science (to put it mildly), but even the softest version of psychology doesn't allow for calling the smoking of MJ to be a DISEASE. that's like saying eating breakfast is a disease. it doesn't even make sense

  • Hyperion||

    allow for calling the smoking of MJ to be a DISEASE

    Count on this if it is legalized, it's like a crony wet dream. It is working out to the tune of billions for alcohol.

    And I call bullshit, diseases are not self inflicted. It is an insult to someone who actually has a disease that they can only wish they could get rid of if they stopped willingly putting something into their bloodstream.

    Biggest bunch of bullshit ever perpetrated onto mankind until Al Gore was born and discovered snake oil in the climate changing.

  • John C. Randolph||

    What exactly is the purpose of putting a pair of Obama-fluffers on Reason.com to try to outdo each other at making excuses for Obama's continuation of the drug war? How about getting either of these useless apparatchiki to actually DEBATE the drug war with someone who's actually trying to end the drug war?


  • Bill||

    I disagree with you John C.

    These two clearly want to move in a new direction in the drug war. Under their brave leadership I'm quite sure we could get to sane drug policies in about another 50 years.

  • Robert||

    Look, the great majority of people don't put as high a value on individual liberty as do radical libertarians. However, they do have differences re drug policies. Since radical libertarians won't be the people to decide these issues, aren't you interested in what factors other people consider and how much weight they put on them in determining what drug policies people should live under? If they're not about to engage you on your terms, wouldn't you be interested in trying to influence them on theirs?

  • Hyperion||

    OMG, I am reading the pre-debate comments at the Fluffhost. Karl Rove!, Koch Brothers! Big Oil! Fox News! BOOOSSSHHH!!!! Haven't they came up with anything new in the past couple of years? And they are all so stoked that the genius Biden is going to just tear apart Ryan and then the election will be all over. Good grief, all of these people honestly sound like they are 8 years old.

  • ||

    Reading comments on the huffpo withers the brain. Stop doing it.

  • Archduke Pantsfan||

    I'm gonna put the Over/Under on Biden saying "literally" at 16.

  • Bill||

    Expectations are low for Biden so he'll probably do fine. They will have him prepped out the wazoo and he will have 5 or 6 sound bites to use that people can cheer or that will cause them to jeer Ryan.

    All he has to do is say Ryan might want to cut a few dollars from any program at all, let alone Medicare or Soc. Sec. and he will have the audience booing.

    I predict Biden will also play the senior statesman card and call Ryan young man.

  • Hyperion||

    I dunno, but they are getting all swoony and starry eyed about him over at the Fluff, like he is their true savior now that the big O layed a giant crap egg at the last debate. Honestly, these people really do sound like they are elementary school children, and not very bright ones at that, every one of them.

    Biteme is the great white hope! Great white dope maybe...

  • ||

    Kevin Sabet, you are one filthy evil scum bag.

  • YinxDoo||

    I really like where that is going. Wow.


  • Brockland||

    Consider INVESTING in the full legalization movement with stock symbol MJNA (Medical Marijuana Inc). With the most recent October polls surging in Washington (24 point lead) and Colorado (10 point lead), ALL with majority support, and with WA GOP US Senate Candidate Michael Baumgartner's recent announcement of official support for I-502, there's no telling where this will go in November. Just look at what happened in the lead up to Prop19 in 2010.

  • FlyingTooLow||

    We are Americans..we live in a free country...this is what we have been told since birth.

    The prohibition of marijuana is a farce. It is the few telling the many what they may and may not do. We are a free people. It is time to start living the way our forefathers intended.

    Law enforcement needs to re-direct its focus on crime...to those that are REAL crimes.

    I was in Federal Prison for 5 years for a marijuana offense. No, it was not for simple possession. I was arrested aboard a Lockheed PV2 in Marianna, Florida...charged and convicted for conspiracy to import and distribute 12,000 pounds of marijuana.

    At the time, I really had no idea what I had gotten myself into...mine was an offense involving pot...the thought never occurred to me that I may actually spend years in prison for that 'indiscretion.'

    As my years in prison rolled by, what I did see were armed bank robbers, coming and going...while I still sat there for marijuana. Most of the bank robbers only spent 17 to 24 months. But, I and my fellow 'drug offenders,'...we stayed for YEARS.

    I wrote about the escapades that led to my incarceration. I admit, I had a great time. No one was injured, no one was killed, firearms were not involved...there were no victims.

    We were Americans...doing what Americans do best...living free.

    Truly, it is time for this lunacy to end...it never should have begun.

    My book: Shoulda Robbed a Bank
    It is about living free.

  • Fury||

    I think the Obama's need to be drug tested, Good Ole Berry was a known crack head and drug dealer in his college days. I bet he'll test positive too. He should be the first arrested.
    The war on drug is a joke, weed(POT) is not a drug, it's a plant. It is healthy and beneficial to smoke it.Cigarettes wouldn't cause cancer if the government didn't put 1,400 chemicals in them that do. Plants do not cause cancer, but the American government does. Why is it that no one ever got cancer until they got a vaccine shot? Check it out, it's loaded with carcinogenics, the mercury attacked the brain that causes Autism among other disabilities.I'm sick and tired of being the governments lab rat!
    You want a war? Let's have one on the men who have committed Treason against the constitution and the citizens of this great nation!

  • شات عراقنا||

    thank you


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