Drug Policy

Obama's 'Third Way' Looks a Lot Like the War on Drugs



We know President Obama is committed to "drug policy reform" because he keeps telling us he is. Since April 2012, when the phrase first appeared on the White House website, it has been mentioned there 65 times. But what does it mean? According to the latest National Drug Control Strategy, which was released today by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), "we must seek to avoid over-simplified debates between the idea of a 'war on drugs' and the notion of legalization as a panacea." Fans of Obamaspeak will appreciate the way that sentence poses a false choice while renouncing false choices. After all, legalization need not be a "panacea," or anything resembling one, to be better than the disastrous war on drugs, which Obama himself once called "an utter failure."

What is the president offering in its place? "Drug use and its consequences are complex phenomena requiring an array of evidence-based policy responses," the ONDCP says. Understanding this reality, "the Administration remains committed to charting this 'third way' toward a healthier, safer, and more prosperous America." But in practice, Obama's "third way" looks an awful lot like the first way, because he refuses to renounce the use of violence to stop people from consuming politically incorrect drugs.

The administration does endorse some sensible harm-reducing policies, including syringe exchange programs that curtail the spread of blood-borne diseases, wider availability of the opioid antagonist naloxone to prevent overdose fatalities, and the adoption of laws that shield people who report overdoses from criminal liability. But Obama's notion of a more enlightened and compassionate drug policy seems to consist mainly of forcing illegal drug users to choose between jail and "treatment." That makes sense, according to the ONDCP, because "substance use disorders are medical conditions." Therefore illegal drug users should be treated just like people afflicted with cancer or heart disease, who are routinely forced to undergo treatment by the threat of imprisonment.

On second thought, maybe that's not such a good comparison. What about alcoholics, who surely are just as afflicted with a substance use disorder as people who favor marijuana, cocaine, meth, or heroin? Nope, heavy drinkers are not compelled to undergo treatment either (unless they harm or endanger others while under the influence). So how is it logical or fair to treat marijuana, cocaine, meth, or heroin addicts like criminals, especially since the ONDCP insists that it's wrong to think "someone with a substance use disorder is exhibiting a willful choice rather than suffering from a recognized medical condition"? As Bill Piper, director of national affairs at 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."

To its credit, the administration thinks some drug offenders should spend less time in that system. It supported less severe penalties for crack offenses, and it favors additional sentencing reforms. The ONDCP regrets that "the United States has the largest per capita prison population in the world," and it cites Attorney General Eric Holder's effort to curtail the use of mandatory minimum sentences "for certain nonviolent, low-level drug offenses." At the same time, the administration believes "serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers" deserve "the most severe mandatory minimum penalties." That description covers plenty of people whose only crime is engaging in peaceful, consensual transactions. For helping people do what the administration says is not really a crime, they go to prison for years or decades.

Aside from sentencing reform (and clemency, assuming Obama follows through on his rumored plans to commute hundreds or thousands of drug sentences), the president's most significant drug policy legacy may prove to be his grudging tolerance of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington. The ONDCP presents the decision not to challenge those laws or go after state-licensed marijuana growers and sellers as an exercise in drug law enforcement. "In August," it says, "DOJ released guidance reiterating that marijuana remains illegal under Federal law and that Federal law enforcement activities in these two states would continue to be guided by eight priorities focused on protecting public health and safety."

While Obama deserves credit for letting these experiments proceed (and for admitting that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, a point that ONDCP Acting Director Michael Botticelli also has conceded), the administration in other ways continues to display an irrational anti-pot prejudice that is hardly consistent with the "evidence-based policy responses" it claims to support. To this day it defends the proposition that marijuana belongs on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which is supposedly reserved for drugs with a "high potential for abuse" that have "no currently accepted medical use" and are so dangerous that they cannot be used safely, even under a doctor's supervision. The ONDCP bemoans reductions in the percentage of teenagers who think trying marijuana or using it occasionally poses "a great risk," even though the truth is that trying marijuana or using it occasionally doesn't pose a great risk.

Perhaps most gratuitiously, the administration continues to back "zero tolerance" drugged driving laws that treat people with any trace of marijuana in their blood as public menaces even when they are not impaired at all. The ONDCP likes that standard, which makes even less sense than the excessively strict five-nanogram rule recently adopted by Washington state, because it "increases the ability to prosecute drivers using drugs other than alcohol without specifying a bodily fluid concentration." But if the point is protecting the public from impaired drivers, shouldn't there be some evidence that the drivers who are prosecuted actually were impaired? Not if the ostensible concern for road safety is just an excuse to punish people for smoking pot. If you believe the ONDCP, that is the sort of mindlessly tough policy that comes from "relying on science, research, and evidence to improve public health and safety in America."

NEXT: Lois Lerner Warned IRS Employees to "be cautious about what we say in emails"

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  1. So how is it logical or fair to treat marijuana, cocaine, meth, or heroin addicts like criminals

    Fair has nothing to do with it but it’s perfectly logical if you understand that both law enforcement and the government crony rehab industries are such total rackets that they make the defense industry seem positively upstanding by comparison.

    1. Don’t forget the prisons.

  2. the ONDCP insists that it’s wrong to think “someone with a substance use disorder is exhibiting a willful choice rather than suffering from a recognized medical condition”

    It’s wrong to think the truth.

    1. And the best way to help people “suffering from a recognized medical condition” is ass rape, breaking up their family, and destroying their future with a criminal record.

    2. Truth is treason in an Empire of Lies.

  3. The Obama administration hanging on to government control of an aspect of personal life, despite some teleprompted words indicating, perhaps otherwise, eventually. Who could have expected that?

  4. Why, it is almost as if Obumbles is abandoning principles he professed to have in order to pander to powerful political interests, and being deceitful about it. If he did not have such a stellar record of principled honesty I would think that is what is going on here.

    This must be more of that 3-D chess I have been hearing about.

  5. Obama’s drug policy is essentially feckless waffling, doing nothing while trying to drop vague comments both sides can read solace into if they want. That’s a ‘Third Way?’

    1. Why, at this point, does he care what the other side thinks?

      The left is the party of civil liberties right up to the point where standing up for civil liberties would result in a reduction to the size/power of government.

    2. “Some say we should execute drug users, while others want the government to provide free drugs to illegal immigrant children. I’m proposing a sensible Third Way.” — Obama, probably

      1. “Some say that all of Our Sacred, High and Holy, Sacred Drug Warriors & other Pubic Servants should be UTTERLY Worshipped, and given ANYTHING that Their Noble, Selfless Selves express any fleeting desire for? Others say that they should be slowly boiled in putrid oil for many weeks. I call for a middle ground, where they are merely yanked off of the public’s tits, and made to go and get honest jobs, filling needs that people are willing to pay for, of their own free will.” Quote, SQRLSy One? And I am willing to run for pubic office and STAND by my “middle ground”!

  6. You Know Who Else advocated a Third Way for his country?

    1. Rob Ford?

    2. Chris Christie?

      Oh, *way* — Never mind.

      1. I was thinking of Stephen Douglas, obviously.

    3. I just want a three way

      1. Bill Clinton?

  7. I think we should consider bureaucratic/Drug Warrior buy outs.

    Let’s face it, if we don’t end the War on Drugs, we’re going to have to spend billions keeping all those cops, SWAT teams, agencies, prison guards, etc. employed anyway. Maybe they’d be willing to at least stop hurting people if we promised to pay them to stay home and do nothing.

    America would be a better place if they weren’t doing their jobs, right?

    So let’s pay ’em to stay home! Yeah, all those government employees would still cost us an arm and a leg, but at least they wouldn’t be hurting people anymore.

    1. A similar proposal: Each year, randomly abolish 10% of the federal work force positions. Each laid-off person then receives, the first year, a pension equal to their full salary; each year thereafter, the pension is reduced 10%.

    2. I think we should consider bureaucratic/Drug Warrior buy outs

      Have you been reading Moldbug??

      There are three basic principles to any reset.

      First, the existing government must be thoroughly lustrated. There is no point in trying to debug or reform it. There is certainly no need for individual purges, McCarthy style, or for Fragebogen and Persilscheine a la 1945. Except for the security forces and essential technical personnel, all employees should be thanked for their service, asked to submit contact information so that they can be hired as temporary consultants if the new administration finds it necessary, and discharged with no hard feelings, an amnesty for any crimes they may have committed in government service, and a pension sufficient to retire.

      1. Arguably Moldbug’s solution was followed in Russia and Ukraine after the USSR’s breakup, whereas the more ‘revolutionary’ approach was successfully implemented in both West and East Germany.

        OTOH, Japan post-1945 was arguably ‘reset’ and Ba’athist Iraq was obviously treated to a bit of revolutionary justice and extirpation, so there’s no obviously right answer to these problems.

      2. all employees should be thanked for their service, asked to submit contact information so that they can be hired as temporary consultants if the new administration finds it necessary, and discharged with no hard feelings, an amnesty for any crimes they may have committed in government service, and a pension sufficient to retire.

        Bull. Fucking. Shit. The only way it will end for an extended period of time is to round up every single one of them and their families to face the just retribution of zhu lian jiu zu, or 9 Clan Guilt, in which they, their parents, their grandparents, their children, their grandchildren, their siblings, and their aunts and uncles are executed, preferably by slow-slicing as their bodies are hung from poles around the perimeter of the National Mall.

        Also, any land they once held as property must also be salted so that there shall be a permanent reminder of the taint of their corruption upon the land.

        1. I was looking for a Minister of Justice for my post-revolutionary regime. Looks like I’ve found the right man!

          SLD: The position is temporary.

    3. “…if we promised to pay them to stay home and do nothing.”

      Give them Bitcoins.

    4. Your solution doesn’t reduce the welfare state so what is the point?

      I’m afraid your solution will simply foment the creation of the Welfare Recipients Union.

  8. “We know President Obama is committed to “drug policy reform” because he keeps telling us he is”….

    He also continues to lie about leading the most transparent administration in history!

    1. I think he may have accomplished that. We can see right through him.

    2. OT: Hey Sevo, I emailed Nick Gillespie suggesting there be some sort of Reason/H+R get-together in SF one evening during the Lincoln Labs Reboot conference (July 18-20), for us locals who aren’t attending. He thought it was a great idea, thinks Sunday the 20th might work, and said he’d let us know. I’ve informed C. Anacreon and Graphite. Feel free to email me ( @gmail.com) or just keep your eye out for a notice on H+R.

      1. I don’t comment here much but would be interested as well. Born here in SF, but don’t know any local libertarians. I’ve heard there are at least 12.

        1. Pretty sure I don’t know you; make it 13.

          1. If you ever comment on sfgate I go by kcassidy there.

            1. I been tossed from sfgate so often I don’t bother to game it anymore.
              You prolly know Starchild? My fave candidate for ANY city office!

              1. I believe I have voted for Starchild. I have had a multitude of extremely mild comments disabled from sfgate but have yet to be banned. i tend to comment much more where people disagree with most of what i say. Here I mostly just lurk and laugh.

      2. If it’s a sorta small gathering (uh, well, I GUESS!), I know a place where people can PARK!
        I’ll drop a message tomorrow; a Sunday afternoon is goof-off time for me.

  9. OT: Another judicial activist/socialist/tyrant judge taking away American freedoms


    1. I thought Alito was a radical conservative? That’s what I kept hearing after he was nominated.

    2. “I’m trying my best to love my wife & kids & cats & dogs & pet fish & bunny Waaaabbits & all the whole loving family, in Obedience to God, but, ya know? Those GAY bastards down the street are loving each other & getting marriage licenses & by them having done that them thar EVIL thing, they have devalued MY marriage license, and so now I can NO LONGER honor my marriage vows”? So gays? Who Jesus never condemned specifically? V/S straight people who get divorced all the time, which (divorce) Jesus DID speak out against? We’re gonna cuss & swear about that them thar gays, & say nothing about divorce; we want divorced people to come to our church and donate money, ya know? But at the end of the day, my breaking my marriage vows, it’s cause of the cussedness of the GAYS who devalued my sacred marriage license!!! Makes sense to me, Bro-esse!

  10. In a related story, a Google executive is left to die on his yacht by a call girl, after she injected him with heroin…


    Makes you wonder if she would have called 911 if their activities had been legal…

    1. The implication is that it was a hot shot, not an accident. Only a 50′ yacht? Google must pay shit;-)

  11. In related news, I know this is an old story, but I just found about it:

    Dude got 20 years for half an ounce!


    If he’d murdered someone, he might have gotten less time. How much is it costing the tax payers to keep him incarcerated?

  12. Drug use and its consequences are complex phenomena requiring an array of evidence-based policy responses

    No, not really. Drug use is painfully simple. Its consequences (absent the drug war) are also not terribly complicated, either, ranging from (for the vast majority) nothing much to a reduced standard of living (not the State’s business), a screwed up personal life (not the State’s business), to homelessness (not the fedgov’s business, possibly the municipality’s business).

    Throw in a drug war and black market, and things get messy, sure. But that means it would be more accurate to say that “government intervention in drug use is a complex phenomenon”.

  13. I think that one way to tell if someone is stupid, or lying, is to see if they use the word “panacea,” as in “my opponent’s proposal is not a panacea.” It’s the most obvious straw man there is, the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz not excepted.

  14. What is the president offering in its place?

    Press releases, that’s what. Rather than focusing on trying to parse meaningless PR (as much fun as that is), howsabout an article about the actual changes that the administration has actually made or seriously pursued (meaning, via actual regulatory changes or ?

    OK, you probably cover that in a tweet, but you get my drift.

  15. I’m beginning to wonder how serious he is about the cascade of commutations we keep hearing predicted.

    1. …”predicted.”

      Sounds very similar to “promised”, and if so, we know that that means.

  16. It is functionally impossible for progressives to engage in meaningful drug policy reform until they reject their entire platform of overarching (mixed metaphors!) view that a person’s health is a matter of public policy. Period. The end.

    When it becomes a central tenet that government can dictate your fat intake, sugar intake or even compel you to buy broccoli, any ‘drug reform’ literally cannot coexist in the same political philosophy.

    Your best hope is the GOP at this point.

    1. Your best hope is the GOP at this point.

      Well that’s.. depressing.

      1. But only if a strong strain of libertarianism infects the GOP. Don’t mistake me for thinking the GOP is a kick-ass party. But in the area of drugs, they at least mostly agree that the state should keep its hands off your body.

        Progressives no longer believe that in any form.

        1. But in the area of drugs, they at least mostly agree that the state should keep its hands off your body.

          That is a fact often misunderstood about conservatives and drugs. Most of the GOP is better on “dietary supplements”, off-label usage and access to FDA non-approved stuff. Of course the conservative principle on drugs goes out the window for stuff that might get you high.

          1. The righties are usually against laws that would prevent a person from taking an experimental med for cancer. They are usually all for laws to punish you for getting high on x and hugging a bunch of people in a club.

            1. …”and hugging a bunch of people in a club.”

              Especially if those people are of the same sex!

              1. damn straight

                1. “damn straight”

                  I see what you did there…

  17. In an unrelated story, a New Jersey bureacrats steals $460,000 (not counting his salary) and gets… probation?


    1. It’s time we move on from this scandal and let bureaucrats get back to doing People’s Business.

    2. Need to swap out this guy’s sentence with the one in Ken’s story above.

  18. You know why Obama is worse than Dubya? (and I didn’t think anyone could be worse than Dubya) It’s because Obama makes a pretense at being a decent human being. At least Dubya was transparently the POS we all know him to be.

    1. I actually think its the reverse. Obama as a person has always struck me as arrogantly stiff at best, while Bush, for all his policy faults, seemed like a decent fellow.

      1. It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone could see Bush as a decent fellow. He has always appeared transparently psychopathic to me. Here’s an example.

  19. Drug warriors have more lobbyists, and in our crony crapitalist system the people with the most lobbyists tend to get their way.

  20. President of Washington and Lee University Moves Rebel Flags, Apologizes for School’s owning of slaves but Defends Lee’s Role at College

    “Reproductions of the Confederate flag will no longer adorn Washington and Lee University’s campus in Lexington, Va., the university president announced Tuesday. However, the school will display historic rebel flags in the university’s Lee Chapel Museum.

    The move came in response to a request from a group of W&L law-school students known as the Committee, which appealed to the university in the spring to remove the flags, to declare Martin Luther King Day a university holiday, and to take steps to confront the school’s murky history in conjunction with slavery…

    ‘Robert E. Lee displayed his estimable skill as an innovative and inspiring educator,’ Ruscio wrote. ‘I personally take pride in his significant accomplishments here and will not apologize for the crucial role he played in shaping this institution.’

    Ruscio did acknowledge that the school had owned between 70 and 80 slaves during ‘a regrettable chapter” of the school’s history and pledged ‘to continue to study [the school’s] historic involvement with slavery.'”


  21. Relative of Israeli Police Brutality Victim Speaks Out

    “Videos and pictures of Tarek hit international mainstream and social media within hours ? perhaps because he is tied to the brutal revenge kidnapping and murder of his cousin, 16-year-old Mohammad Abu Khieder, or perhaps because he is an American. Tarek’s family, who live in communities across the United States and in Jerusalem, was lucky: Calls from journalists (about what high school he goes to and what his hobbies are) helped get him released from an Israeli jail and sent to a hospital.

    The problem is that Tarek is not alone. This week’s violent attacks on two teenage boys, and an entire Jerusalem village, are not outliers. This is how Israeli security forces work, both inside and outside the Palestinian Territory.

    State-sanctioned Israeli brutality toward local Palestinian populations is a regular occurrence in Israel and the West Bank. As a result of the disappearance of three Israeli teens hitchhiking in the West Bank (they were later murdered), Israel’s response was to kill six Palestinians, arrest some 700, invade 1,600 homes, schools and businesses and bomb over 30 sites.”


    1. You didn’t post the money quote:

      Imagine sending your son or daughter to the corner store, only to have him or her hunted by violent fundamentalists systematically attacking a local ethnic population. This is Trayvon Martin, en masse.

      1. The OTHER part of the truth (Martin threw away the sword and the pistol by his side, before he died, and the cops never found it, bumbling fools that they were), but here is the REAL truth:
        Martin went a fartin’,
        And he did ride,
        With a sword and a pistol
        By his side,
        Lookin’ for a “creepy ass cracker”
        To help him eat his skittles,
        So when he couldn’t find his spittoon,
        He spit instead in his shittooon,
        And shit instead in his spittoon,
        While the cow jumped over the moon,
        And the dish snorted coke with a spoon,
        And we’ll all know the truth real soon!

  22. Jedediah may just be the greatest name EVAH!

  23. Maybe he didn’t poop?

  24. Sounds like some pretty serious smack to me dude.


  25. Sorry, you sort of lost me with this: “Therefore illegal drug users should be treated just like people afflicted with cancer or heart disease, who are routinely forced to undergo treatment by the threat of imprisonment.”

    Man, I don’t know where you live, but I’m an Oncology nurse, and I can’t think of a single case where we’ve forced a patient to take treatment or go to jail. As a matter of fact, patients of all sorts are told they can refuse treatment and/or medications if they wish. They rarely do, but I’ve known a couple, and neither were imprisoned for refusing treatment. I’ve never had to put someone in restraints and force them, against their will, to take chemo. I’m pretty sure I’d lose my license if I told someone they’d go to jail if they said no.

    And with most services being in short supply, rather than short demand, I have a hard time imagining any doctors or nurses threatening to send any patient to jail if they refused treatment! And I’ve not heard of children being threatened with imprisonment, either, although courts have intervened with parental decisions on children’s treatment, but that’s not the same thing. Wondering where the author gets his information, since he says this “routinely” happens.

  26. Also, nice chimpy pic selection of Botticelli (who is no artist) by Sullum, who I suspect has an understated sense of humor.

  27. You’d think every pastor in the entire country would’ve been preaching hell fire and brimstone against prison establishment for years…

    Nary a peep from these filthy rotten shitbags who sit in their tax-free pompous offices. American churches are a few pages of legislation from ISIS trash.

    1. Agile Cyborg|7.9.14 @ 11:13PM|#
      “You’d think every pastor in the entire country would’ve been preaching hell fire and brimstone against prison establishment for years…”

      You’d hope the ones preaching in black or brown congregations would do so, but quite a few (Hey, Obo! Who was that guy?!) spend their time griping about those of other skin colors rather than the folks who toss their kids in the slammer.
      Pretty sure it’s the effect of the “free shit” party.

      1. Fine. The fucking religious establishment full of whites, browns, and blacks is nothing more than an authoritarian gang bang on those who deviate. The entire goddamn pile of bible-loving jesus bleaters from Black Baptist Detroit avenue right down to White Southern Baptist Louisiana Street are all nothing more than god-fearing tyrants who live off the rancid fumes of the imprisoned. Bunch of rotten, self-enriching delusional Hitlers.

        1. “Bunch of rotten, self-enriching delusional Hitlers.”

          I’m generous: There are one or two who really aren’t that bad.
          I think. Maybe.

          1. Proof, dear.

            1. Tough crowd!

    2. lolwut?

  28. Speaking of government evil Chicago hero Jon Burge will continue to collect his pensioni while he serves his time in prison for being a vile scumbag.

    On July 3, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in favor of a decision by Chicago’s police pension board allowing disgraced former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge to continue receiving his approximately $3,000 per month pension.

    Higher Standard.

    But what about the good cops, you ask?

    In 2010, after Burge’s conviction, he and his pension were judged by the city’s police pension board, an eight-person group that included four of Burge’s fellow Chicago policemen.
    When the board held a vote on whether Burge should be allowed to receive his full pension, the four current or former Chicago police officers on the board voted for the criminal to keep receiving his payment, while the four civilian trustees voted against it, according to the Chicago Tribune./i

    Protecting and Serving.

  29. “SAN ANTONIO ? Jurors who deliberated for 10 hours Tuesday determined that Adrian Perryman was not guilty of aggravated assault of a public servant for a 2010 shooting that took place inside his home as police were serving a search warrant.

    “They also found Perryman, 52, not guilty of a lesser charge of deadly conduct for firing four rounds at the group of officers he believed to be intruders.

    Defense attorney Tony Jimenez told jurors during closing arguments Tuesday that his client, whose home had twice before been broken into, had been awakened by his frantic girlfriend, Rebecca Flores, and was acting on adrenaline when he shot.”


    1. I am truly shocked. How many times has that happened? Not much surprises me, but that is a very very good story.

  30. A (black female) Yale professor says that the movement to legalize pot is just a bunch of white men who want to make obscene profits for something that blacks always get thrown in jail for…where do you begin with that?

    I reject the premise that drug laws are intrinsically racist, since you’d have to accept the (racist) premise that non-whites are a bunch of degenerate drug addicts. That is an urban vs. rural thing–it’s a whole lot easier to get busted in a city than out in the country smoking a doobie on a tractor (trust me), especially if you’re talking about a high crime area.

    This retard seems to also believe that legal pot growers would be as big as Apple or the Union Pacific railroad, you’d have to have the whole country smoking themselves retarded for pot to necessarily be a “big business” (which I would find alarming).

    It’s time to drop the “drug wars = racism” thing, because it’s less than non-essential, but it gives the left another avenue (however rationalistic) to project race into, and thus to grieve upon.

  31. Prohibitionist parasites will say and do anything to keep their morally bankrupt policy in place , padding their pockets with blood money.

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