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.


This week, Drug Policy Institute's Kevin Sabet and Drug Policy Alliance's Ethan Nadelmann debate marijuana politics.

Today's question concerns the Obama administration's drug policy record and the choice facing American voters in this year's presidential election. Previously, Sabet and Nadelmann debated state marijuana initiatives and marijuana legalization and the nanny state.

How does the Obama administration's drug policy and enforcement stack up against those of other administrations? What changes should the U.S.A. pursue after the November election?

Kevin Sabet:

Kevin Sabet

First, an important note about the question of drug incarceration is that the share (both percentage and number) of drug offenders in state prisons has fallen over the past 12 years or so. Are there still too many people in prison? Yes. But most importantly, people are not jailed or imprisoned for marijuana use. The Obama Administration has gone after violators of medical marijuana laws—suppliers, growers, and traffickers—with vigor. This should give little ease to those who think the president will look the other way if Washington, Colorado, or Oregon legalizes marijuana outright in November.

The Obama Administration, which I was proud to serve in, sought to turn the idea of drug addiction on its head: rather than a moral choice reflecting bad character, drug use and addiction should be seen as a health and safety issue, best tackled by both the public health and criminal justice system. Drug use is a complex bio-behavioral disorder—a disease of the brain, not the elbow, as Herb Kleber once said. That means that drug addiction is unlike other health conditions. Though diabetes is also chronic disease, it rarely causes crime, tears apart families, or causes a hazard on the road.

If you understand that, you understand why we pursued practical things that combined health and safety objectives: drug courts which refer offenders to treatment instead of incarceration; drug market interventions that reduce the most violent aspects of drug dealing; coerced abstinence that implements swift but modest sanctions for drug use in the community corrections system; drug prevention community coalitions that bring together teachers with police, parents with businesspeople; medical school curricula that teach current and future doctors how to properly prescribe pharmaceutical drugs and watch out for abuse; brief interventions that detect drug use in a hospital setting before it manifests itself as an addiction in the local precinct; smart re-entry policies that don't penalize recovering addicts by using a past criminal record against them when they try to get a job or access education and housing benefits—the list can go on. We showed that you don't have to make a choice between enforcement-centered prohibition and risky legalization—there are plenty of ways to make our policies work much better. I hope whomever is elected in November continues down this path of reform. I'm confident that both candidates will.

Kevin A. Sabet, PhD, is Director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida. He served as a senior advisor in the Obama Administration from 2009 to 2011.

Ethan Nadelman:

Ethan Nadelmann

I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the extent to which President Obama initially made good on the three principal drug policy reform commitments he made during his 2008 campaign: to reform the draconian crack cocaine mandatory minimum penalties; to allow federal funding for needle exchange programs to reduce HIV/AIDS; and to allows states greater latitude in regulating medical marijuana.

Those initiatives were followed, however, by numerous steps backwards. The Obama administration allowed House Republicans to re-institute the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs, and it has allowed federal prosecutors to go after medical marijuana providers operating entirely legally and transparently under state and local law. The lawsuit filed today by the City Of Oakland against the federal government's assault on medical marijuana would not have been necessary if Obama had continued to make good on his initial campaign commitment.

More broadly, the Obama administration's drug policies have not differed all that much from its predecessors, even if the rhetoric has softened. Law enforcement and interdiction efforts still receive much more funding than non-coercive efforts to reduce drug misuse, notwithstanding substantial evidence that the latter is more effective—and cost-effective—than the former. Drug law violators make up roughly half the federal prison population. Drug war politics still routinely trump science, as evidenced by ongoing efforts to impede research on the medical benefits of marijuana, or to support the sorts of research on heroin maintenance programs and safe injection facilities that have produced such positive results outside the U.S. "Treatment" programs that punish people for using drugs are ideologically preferred to those that reduce drug misuse without threatening or punishing people.

U.S. international drug control policy has also changed little—although credit must be given to a subtle but important shift in rhetoric this past spring. The Obama administration's responses to the 2009 Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and the 2011 Global Drug Policy Commission—both of which were chaired by distinguished former presidents and called for major reforms in global drug policy—were intellectually shallow and morally shameful. But when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, and other Latin American leaders upped the ante by backing the recommendations of the commissions, including its call to "break the taboo" on full consideration of all drug policy options, President Obama and Vice President Biden both publicly acknowledged that legalization was a "legitimate subject of debate." Obama also told Latin American leaders that the United States was willing to consider where U.S. international drug policies might be doing more harm than good. Modest as these rhetorical shifts were, they have provided an opening for a more robust debate on alternatives to failed prohibitionist policies in the Americas.

As for what comes after the election, much depends on who is in the White House and who controls each house of Congress. Romney's statements and rhetoric on drug policy have been dreadful; he can't even bring himself to acknowledge that marijuana might be medically beneficial for a small number of people. And Republicans in Congress have been remarkably lame, apart from an occasional willingness to cut funding for ineffective drug war programs. Even their proclaimed states' rights principles are readily abandoned whenever the subject is medical marijuana. Of course it would be foolish to count on any major transformation even if the Democrats take it all. An improvement, yes. A transformation, no.

What I'm most curious about is the potential for marijuana policy to change. The Obama campaign is clearly treading cautiously in Colorado, a swing state where likely voters appear evenly split on whether or not to support a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana. A similar initiative, in Washington State, has a real chance of winning. A majority of Democrats, independents, and people aged 18-50 nationwide now favor legalizing marijuana. The principal opposition comes primarily from Republicans, conservatives, and Americans over age 65. I don't want to be so confident as to say it's only a matter of time before public support for ending marijuana prohibition overwhelms the entrenched interests and fears that sustain it, but the momentum clearly favors reform. I doubt the leadership will come from Washington, regardless of who's sitting in the Oval Office, but I'd bet on a second-term Obama being less resistant than a first term Romney.

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.