How the Obama Administration Plans to Convince Progressives That it Ended the War on Drugs


What's the quickest way for the Obama administration to convince progressives that the war on drugs is over, even though it's not?

Step 1: Say that the drug war is over.

Step 2: Convince the largest and most powerful progressive think tank in America to agree with you, invite you to their headquarters, praise you for having "transformed" drug policy in the United States, and pitch you softball questions.

Step 3: Repeat step 1.

This is how you placate liberal hearts and minds after three years of broken drug war promises, and it's exactly what Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske and the Center for American Progress did this morning.

The spin started the moment CAP President Neera Tanden opened her mouth to introduce Kerlikowske.

"For decades, the United States treated drug abuse as a moral failure and fought it with arrests and incarceration," Tanden said. "Instead of building treatment centers, we built jails. As a result, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, at a dear cost to federal and state budgets at a time when those budgets are very constrained. The human costs are more tragic still, to the families and communities who have not got the support they need to overcome substance abuse."

Note that Tanden spoke in the past tense, as if the United States were no longer fighting the drug war with arrests and incarceration. Note that she assessed untreated addiction to be the most notable "human cost" of the drug war, as opposed to unjust incarceration, broken families, lost job opportunities, seized assets, and/or death. Note that these were simply the opening remarks of an hour-long event.

But Tanden didn't just reframe the debate in order to avoid discussing the Obama administration's commitment to prohibition. She also told a few whoppers, such as this one: "We welcome the…shifts in funding that have seen more money spent in the last three years on drug education and treatment than on law enforcement."

Obama's budget proposal for 2013 allocates almost 60 percent of the drug control budget to enforcement. Previous budgets have allocated even more. Tanden may be misinformed, bad at math, a liar, or all of the above. Regardless, she is wrong.

Upon taking the podium, Kerlikowske matched Tanden in intellectual dishonesty, and then raised her one.

"Let me start by sharing a concern that many people in the public health and safety community share about drug policy," Kerlikowske said. "Over the last few years, this public debate on drug policy has lurched between two extreme views. Let me characterize those two views for you: On the one side we have very vocal, organized, well-funded advocates who insist drug legalization is a silver bullet for addressing our nation's drug problem. On the other side of the debate we have the law enforcement-only war-on-drugs approach. If only we could spend more on prisons and increase arrests and seizures of drugs, the drug problem would just go away."

In two breaths, Kerlikowske mischaracterized the anti-prohibition movement, while mischaracterizing the Obama administration's actual drug policy record—here is a long list of recent DEA press releases crowing about drug convictions and drug seizures—by attributing it to some unnamed crowd. (Newsflash, Gil: You is them.)  

Kerlikowske finished up his opening remarks by claiming that the Obama administration had invented a "third way" to combat the drug problem:

The Obama administration believes neither of these approaches is humane, compassionate, realistic, and most importantly, they are not grounded in science. The approaches also do not acknowledge the complexity of our nation's drug problem, or reflect the science of the last two decades. That's why two weeks ago we released the national drug control policy, and it pursues a third way to drug control. It's progressive, it's innovative, it's evidence-based and it presents what we believe to be the way ahead for the drug policy.

(If the "third way" proposal sounds familiar, it's because Mark Kleiman wrote about it recently in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, which Kerlikowske read and agrees with.)

After Kelikowske finished speaking, he sat down with Tanden for a brief Q&A. It began with this question: "You said the 'war on drugs' does not address the complexity of the drug problem or the administration's response. Why do you say that?" That from the president of the largest and most powerful progressive think tank in America. 

After a few more softballs from Tanden, Kerlikowske fielded questions from the audience that had been written on index cards. One of those questions came from Steve Fox of MPP, who asked why the ONDCP treats alcohol differently than marijuana, which is stastically safer. It's a common question from legalization advocates, and Kerlikowske has answered it many, many times. His answer this morning, however, featured an incredible degree of dissembling:

So I think the issue always gets around the debate…Well alcohol is more dangerous, or alcohol causes more deaths, or alcohol. So certainly nobody is going to roll the clock back and say, 'Gee, we need to institute prohibition on alcohol. But, there are no good reasons to legalize marijuana. I often hear about tax, regulate, and control as an answer. But then I look at prescription drugs, which as I mentioned take over 15,000 lives a year, let alone the people who come into emergency departments. Prescription drugs are already regulated, already taxed and controlled, and we do a very poor job of keeping them out of the hands of abusers, misusers, and young people. So I don't see that we would do a very good job with a substance that could easily evade the tax, because it doesn't take rocket science to grow marijuana.

This despite the fact that more people already use marijuana than prescription oxy, to no ill effect. 

The other good question came from Scott Morgan, of the StopTheDrugWar.org, who asked if Kerlikowske supported compulsory treatment of casual drug users, and if arresting marijuana users and forcing them into treatment was an effective policy. This time, Kerlikowske played dumb:

Again, that's a bit of a myth. If someone's arrested for a small amount of marijuana, and the determination is made they have to go into treatment, treatment beds and space are a valuable commodity. I think professionals can clearly assess when someone is in need of treatment. Compulsory treatment is not something I'm as familiar with in great detail at the local level.

Here's the thing: The words "compulsory treatment" may not appear anywhere in the 2012 Drug Control Strategy report, but it's nevertheless an inherent aspect of Obama's supposed shift to a public health approach. Every single alternative to incarceration proposed by the Obama administration–from drug courts to prison rehab programs to family doctor-catalyzed interventions–features some form of compulsory addiction treatment. This is the tradeoff Americans will soon be forced to make: Government-mandated counseling instead of jail time. 

That Kerlikowske whiffed on this question is incredible. It means that although the Obama administration thinks compulsory treatment is better than jail time, it's afraid to come out and say that. Let me repeat that: The Obama administration is unwilling to talk publicly about the central plank of its drug policy platform. 

It's equally amazing to me that Tanden failed to call him on it. 

Previously: Why Is the Center for American Progress Enabling Obama's Drug War Lies?