Today the Obama administration hosted the first-ever White House Conference on Drug Policy Reform. But don't be confused: Although "drug policy reform" usually means moving away from the use of violence to stop people from consuming arbitrarily proscribed psychoactive substances, that is not what President Obama has in mind.
"Drug policy reform should be rooted in neuroscience, not political science," says Obama's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, in the email message announcing the conference. "It should be a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue. That's what a 21st-century approach to drug policy looks like."
In truth, this 21st-century approach to drug policy looks a lot like the 20th-century approach to drug policy. Kerlikowske, who is still upset that he does not get credit for ending the war on drugs when he took office in 2009, thinks enlightenment in this area means forcing drug users into "treatment" by threatening them with jail rather than sending them directly to jail. He needs the heavy hand of the state not only to impose treatment on recalcitrant drug users but to imprison people who supply them with the drugs they want. That is why Kerlikowske says drug policy is "not just a criminal justice issue"—because he cannot imagine a drug policy that does not entail locking people in cages for actions that violate no one's rights, whether those actions involve using politically disfavored intoxicants or helping people do so.
Patrick Kennedy, co-founder of the anti-pot group Project SAM, likewise tries to distract attention from the half a million Americans imprisoned for drug offenses. "For too long drug policy has been caught in between the false dichotomy of legalization versus incarceration," Kennedy says in a press release about the White House conference, where he co-chaired a panel. The alternative to legalization is continued prohibition, which requires incarceration. Prohibitionists like Kennedy and Kerlikowske should have the courage to defend stripping people of their liberty for doing nothing more than supplying a product to eager buyers. Instead they pretend this is not happening.
As for Kerlikowske's claim that he seeks to depoliticize drug policy, that is impossible as long as the government tries to dictate what people put into their bodies. How can such an endeavor be anything but political? The Obama administration, for example, is committed to defending the position that marijuana, which the Drug Enforcement Administration's chief administrative law judge once called "the safest therapeutically active substance known to man," has a high potential for abuse, lacks medical value, and cannot be used safely even under a doctor's supervision. This is Kerlikowske's idea of sound science.
Mason Tvert, director of communications at the Marijuana Policy Project, argues that Kerlikowske's avowed respect for neuroscience is also belied by his continued support for a policy that encourages people to use a more dangerous intoxicant instead of marijuana. "Every objective study on marijuana has concluded that it poses far less harm to the brain than alcohol," says Tvert, co-author of Marijuana Is Safer. "The ONDCP has long championed laws that steer adults toward using alcohol and away from making the safer choice to use marijuana. If the drug czar is truly committed to prioritizing neuroscience over political science, he should support efforts to make marijuana a legal alternative to alcohol for adults."