Obama Ends the War on Drugs…Again


I had a look at the Obama administration's latest drug control strategy yesterday but did not see anything new or interesting that was worthy of comment. Apparently I missed some big news. Here is how NewsOne, which provides "Breaking News for Black America," headlined its story: "Focusing on Prevention and Neuroscience, President Ends Reagan's War On Drugs." The author, Paul Shepard, reports that "the White House announced a new direction in the War on Drugs, where stopping drug use before it starts and treating drug addition as a health issue will now be priorities." The White House has been announcing this new direction since 2009, when drug czar Gil Kerlikowske first declared an end to the war on drugs, but in practice it has carried on pretty much as before, in some ways (e.g., Obama's promise-breaking crackdown on medical marijuana) with even greater zeal. Although no one should be fooled anymore by Obama's pseudoscientific, quasi-medical, faux-compassionate rhetoric, it seems that some people are still desperate to believe he is as enlightened and progressive as his reputation.

Shepard, for example, considers this quote from Kerlikowske to be evidence of a real breakthrough: "Drug policy should be rooted in neuroscience, not political science." What Kerlikowske means is that consuming certain drugs (coincidentally, the ones that happen to be illegal) changes people's brains in such a way that they are no longer capable of making decisions for themselves, thereby justifying government intervention. Kerlikowske's idea of enlightened drug policy is forcing drug users to choose between a treatment slot and a jail cell. As Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance observes:

The Administration says drug use is a health issue but then advocates for policies that put people in the criminal justice system. Until the Drug Czar says it is time to stop arresting people for drug use, he is not treating drug use as a health issue no matter what he says. I know of no other health issue in which people are thrown in jail if they don't get better.

By describing drug use as a disease—as something that happens to people against their will, rather than something they choose to do—Obama and his underlings seek to persuade us that using violence to stop people from consuming certain substances does not interfere with liberty at all. To the contrary, such coercion promotes true liberty by freeing people from the slavery of their addictions. Seems pretty fucking political to me.

If Obama were as concerned about the racially disproportionate impact of draconian drug sentences as Shepard claims, wouldn't he have managed by now, more than four years into his presidency, to have commuted more than one? Ronald Reagan, whom Shepard blames for starting the drug war that Obama has now mercifully ended, had a stronger clemency record than Obama. But then, so did every other president, with the exception of George Washington in his first term and two presidents who died during their first year in office.

Shepard, by the way, specifically mentions Reagan's wife, Nancy, for her role in launching a crusade that featured "wholesale arrests and stiffer sentencing for anyone even suspected of drug involvement," sending "a clear message that government intended to empty the streets and fill the prisons until drugs were no more." In a 2010 interview for The Nation, Sasha Abramsky asked Kerlikowske to identify "major successes" in federal drug control. His response: "'Just Say No' under Nancy Reagan."

Addendum: My colleague Mike Riggs points out that The Root's Keli Goff also fell for the Obama administration's "public health" rhetoric, although she is a bit more cautious than Shepard. "Is Obama Evolving on Marijuana?" asks the headline above her post. The subhead claims "a new approach to drug policy could signal the end of the drug war." According to Goff, "the Obama administration's new softer tone, particularly on the issue of marijuana," suggests "the administration may finally be ready to put the so-called drug war to bed and replace it with a much more commonsense drug policy focused on rehabilitation, not incarceration."

The evidence for that thesis is pretty thin. Under "a public health approach," Kerlikowske said yesterday, "legalizing drugs, thereby making them much more easily and widely available, would not be a very wise policy." In other words, Kerlikowske's understanding of "public health" requires the government to continue arresting and imprisoning people for producing or selling certain drugs, including marijuana. Then again, he said, "we also don't think that people—particularly those that are possessing small amounts of marijuana—that having an arrest record, that being put into the system, is particularly helpful either." Goff is right that Kerlikowske here goes further than Obama did when he said last December, with reference to pot smokers, "we've got bigger fish to fry," which has always been true of the federal government. The observation that busting people for small amounts of marijuana is not "particularly helpful" may be as close as an Obama administration official has come to saying that people should not be arrested merely for smoking pot. If that is indeed Obama's current opinion, it has taken him more than four years to return to a position he advocated when he was running for the U.S. Senate in 2004.

Since state and local police account for 99 percent of pot busts, including essentially all arrests involving personal-use amounts, that position has little relevance to federal policy. Still, with police make hundreds of thousands of such arrests every year, it would be nice to hear Obama himself directly say what President Jimmy Carter said 36 years ago: that pot smokers should not be treated like criminals because "penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself." But if people should not be arrested for actually consuming marijuana, why should others be arrested merely for aiding and abetting that offense?

[Thanks to sam the man for the tip.]