Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske will speak at the Center for American Progress for an hour tomorrow morning about President Barack Obama’s awful drug control strategy. Here’s how CAP is advertising the event:
Forty years after President Richard Nixon first declared that drug abuse was "public enemy number one," the Obama administration has announced an end to the so-called "war on drugs" approach to drug policy. Recognizing that America will never be able to arrest its way out of the drug problem, the administration's newly announced drug policy strategy shifts away from a law enforcement only approach to a drug policy recognizing that America's drug problem is a public health issue—not just a criminal one. It outlines significant reforms aimed at treating drug addiction as a chronic disease instead of a “moral” failure.
Even though overall drug use is down, and the U.S. prison population declined for the first time in 40 years, more than 7 million people remain under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Of these, more than 2 million are behind bars. Making matters worse, drug-induced deaths now claim more lives than gun violence, and prescription drug abuse has been declared an epidemic. Will these reforms really break the vicious cycle of drug use, crime, incarceration, and rearrest in America?
Members of the Obama administration have been saying the same thing since 2009, when Kerlikowske first told the Wall Street Journal that the “war on drugs” was over:
"Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs' or a 'war on a product,' people see a war as a war on them," he said. "We're not at war with people in this country."
Mr. Kerlikowske's comments are a signal that the Obama administration is set to follow a more moderate—and likely more controversial—stance on the nation's drug problems. Prior administrations talked about pushing treatment and reducing demand while continuing to focus primarily on a tough criminal-justice approach.
Three years later, the most controversial thing about Obama’s drug policy is that it’s no different than that of George W. Bush.
Federal drug prosecutions continue apace; federal mandatory minimum sentences are still in effect; the DEA and the FBI are still cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries and growers; the bulk of the federal drug budget is still dedicated to putting people in cages.
The administration has so few reforms worth touting in the post-drug-war drug war that you’ve probably heard them both several times: It reduced (but did not eliminate) the sentencing disparity for crack cocaine and regular cocaine, and it's encouraged the use of drug courts over regular courts.
That. Is. It. The Obama administration has not ended the war on drugs. It has not even modestly (certainly not radically) changed its approach to the war on drugs, as evidenced by former ONDCP advisor Kevin Sabet's statement that the 2012 strategy (which CAP claims ends the drug war) is a continuation of its 2010 and 2011 drug strategies.
Not to mention that if Obama was truly doing something novel on drug policy reform, you'd think drug policy folks would be thanking him. Instead, the Marijuana Policy Project called the 2012 report "appalling" and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition said "the president needs to put his money where his mouth is."
That the Center for American Progress would herald the Obama administration for doing something it absolutely has not done isn't really a surprise. As an institution, CAP’s approach to the drug war is largely dependent on what party is in the White House. Here it is, in 2007, encouraging the Bush administration to do more drug interdiction in Colombia; here it is, in April 2009, calling Bush’s drug interdiction in Mexico a failure:
It is difficult to see how the U.S. “war on drugs”—first described as such by President Richard Nixon in 1969—has done anything to reduce the power of drug trafficking organizations in the Americas, let alone reduce the demand for drugs in the United States.
A year later, CAP was put in the awkward position of having to defend a Bush policy that it had attacked, but that Obama was continuing. CAP's Michael Werz provided plenty of cover in an interview:
Discussions on legalization of "soft drugs" like marijuana in order to weaken the illegal market, or the ban on the sale of weapons to combat smuggling, are problematic for many Democrats in the U.S. and collide with fierce opposition and attacks from Republicans. So [we] "can not expect big changes in the next two years (before the next presidential election)," Werz said.
To recap: The Obama administration has not deviated from the drug war policies of George W. Bush beyond changing (but not eliminating) the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and regular cocaine. During that same three-year period, however, CAP has graduated from saying that the “big changes” will come in Obama’s second term, to saying that the big changes have already happened.