Drug Policy

Obama "Will Pivot to the Drug War" in Second Term, Claim Anonymous White House Sources

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Marc Ambinder reports in GQ that Obama will turn his attention to the drug war if re-elected. There's not a lot of meat to this scoop

According to ongoing discussions with Obama aides and associates, if the president wins a second term, he plans to tackle another American war that has so far been successful only in perpetuating more misery: the four decades of The Drug War.

Don't expect miracles. There is very little the president can do by himself. And pot-smokers shouldn't expect the president to come out in favor of legalizing marijuana. But from his days as a state senator in Illinois, Obama has considered the Drug War to be a failure, a conflict that has exacerbated the problem of drug abuse, devastated entire communities, changed policing practices for the worse, and has led to a generation of young children, disproportionately black and minority, to grow up in dislocated homes, or in none at all.

Since the United Ststes isn't about to legalize or regulate the illegal narcotics markets, the best thing a president can do may be what Obama winds up doing if he gets re-elected: using the bully pulpit to draw attention to the issue.

But he won't do so before November.

This report makes me wonder if Ambinder has been following Gil Kerlikowske's tour in promotion of Obama's 2012 Drug Control Strategy Report. You see, the White House is already claiming to have been doing some pretty revolutionary stuff on the drug war front (even though it's not actually doing anything helpful). See "How the Obama Administration Plans to Convince Progressives That it Ended the War on Drugs," and "If Obama Really Believes Drug Addiction Is a Disease, Not a Moral Failing, Why Is He Putting Sick People In Prison?"

In fact, I think it's more likely Ambinder got spun. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition thinks the same thing

Sounds exciting, but don't be fooled by the big headline because the piece itself contains zero details about what the administration allegedly has in mind. A skeptical observer could easily come away from reading this piece thinking that administration/campaign people who recognize the drug war's vast political unpopularity are being somewhat disingenuous with Ambinder.  

Obama—as candidate and as president—and his drug czar have already repeatedly talked about scaling back the war on drugs.  But it's been all talk.  Drug Czar Kerlikowske, in his very first interview with the Wall Street Journal after taking office, declared the end of the "war on drugs" terminology.  He has repeatedly said that this is a health and not just a crime issue.  But the problem is: the drug control budget still overwhelmingly devotes more resources to old, failed punishment strategies than effective treatment and prevention strategies.  The rhetoric doesn't match the reality.

So while Ambinder's story says the administration will use the "bully pulpit" to talk about this issue in the second term, they have already done so in the first term.  Sure, maybe the president himself could do more to forcefully champion this debate, but absent any real policy action it's not going to make a difference in the real medical problem of substance abuse, and it's not going to impress anyone. 

LEAP also points out that Ambinder is flat-out wrong about Obama's inability to change drug policy unilaterally. The president can, in fact, institute a change of scheduling for marijuana. He can also prioritize federal law enforcement resources (as he's done with young immigrants) as well as pardon federally convicted drug offenders. Ambinder really did get spun.