Obama Scaled Back the War on Drugs, and I Missed It


One-upping GQ's Marc Ambinder, who recently predicted that Barack Obama "will pivot to the drug war" in his second term if he is re-elected, The Daily Beast's James Higdon claims the president already has scaled back the crusade to stop Americans from altering their consciousness in politically disfavored ways. Higdon's evidence: less money in the administration's fiscal year 2013 budget for marijuana-spotting helicopters. Seriously:

Until now, the DEA and state law enforcement could count on the National Guard to fly hundreds of helicopter hours over national forests and other public land, where growers became active following the passage of property-seizure laws in the Reagan years—but the FY13 budget changes that.

The 50-percent cut is not being apportioned evenly across the states—it's a two-thirds cut in Oregon and a 70-percent cut in Kentucky, while the Southern border states are receiving less severe reductions in funding. It's essentially a diversion of Defense Department assets away from the interior American marijuana fields to where the national-security risk is greatest: along our Southern border.

Higdon sees this budgetary rejiggering, which by his own admission will have no impact on the amount of marijuana supplied to or consumed by Americans, as a landmark on "the road map to pot decriminalization." That map, he says, "can be found in the executive order President Obama issued on immigration to effectively implement components of the DREAM Act without the help of Congress by ordering his executive branch to de-prioritize enforcement of certain laws." Higdon's implication is that Obama could (as Mike Riggs has suggested) do the same sort of thing with drug policy, using his executive power to make it less aggressively unjust. But that does not mean he will. Here are some facts that suggest he won't: Obama has delivered the opposite of what he promised with respect to medical marijuana, he has not backed any significant drug policy reforms except for reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine powder, he has repeatedly laughed at the very idea of legalizing pot, his administration continues to absurdly insist that marijuana belongs on Schedule I, and he has commuted exactly one of the many drug sentences that he condemned as senselessly draconian before he was elected. Higdon is so desperate to find evidence that Obama is a reformer that he latches onto a remark the president made on Jimmy Fallon' talk show in April: "We're not going to have legalized weed anytime soon." To Higdon, who calls Ambinder's piece "scantily sourced," that line means Obama is thinking about "breaking the taboo of the marijuana prohibition."

It is telling that Higdon sees Richard Nixon as the embodiment of the war on drugs, saying "President Obama needs to kick Richard Nixon right square in the puss" through "a massive legislative package that returns America to a pre-Nixon posture on pot; flattens the cocaine/crack disparity; eliminates mandatory minimum sentences; re-instates federal parole for nonviolent and victimless crimes; reins in property-seizure laws; grounds the fleet of pot-spotting helicopters; and grants blanket clemency for those currently serving federal prison time for trumped-up marijuana crimes." As I noted last year in connection with what was billed (rather arbitrarily) as the 40th anniversary of Nixon's war on drugs, Nixon, contrary to his reputation, supported a kinder, gentler approach to drug policy that was similar to the recommendations of many contemporary reformers, featuring compassion for addicts, treatment instead of prison, and condemnation of needlessly harsh penalties. Never mind kicking Nixon in the puss. If Obama embraced Nixon's drug policies, that might count as an improvement. 

For more on how Obama has disappointed supporters (except for James Higdon) who hoped he would be better on drug policy than his predecessor, see my October Reason cover story.