Drug War

Is Obama the Drug Warrior Becoming Obama the Reformer?

The president has begun to deliver on promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances.

|

In a 2011 Reason cover story, I explained why drug policy reformers had been bitterly disappointed by President Obama's performance during his first few years in office. With the notable exception of his support for shorter crack sentences, which Congress approved almost unanimously in 2010, Obama had done very little to de-escalate the war on drugs, despite comments prior to his election that led people to believe his administration would be less repressive than his predecessor's.

To the contrary, the feds cracked down on medical marijuana more aggressively under Obama than they had under George W. Bush, even though he and his attorney general, Eric Holder, repeatedly promised the opposite. The administration continued to defend marijuana's status as a Schedule I drug, a category supposedly reserved for substances with a high potential for abuse that have no accepted medical applications and cannot be used safely, even under a doctor's supervision. When the subject of marijuana legalization came up, Obama literally laughed at the idea. Finally empowered to release drug offenders serving sentences that he had said were too long, Obama issued only one commutation during his first term and was on track to leave behind the stingiest clemency record of any modern president.

Some critics of the war on drugs—a crusade that Obama had declared "an utter failure" in 2004—predicted that he would improve in his second term. Safely re-elected, he would not have to worry that looking soft on drugs would cost him votes, and he would finally act on his avowed belief that the war on drugs is unjust and ineffective. As Obama embarks on the third year of his second term, it looks like the optimists were partially right, although much hinges on what he does during the next two years. Here are some of the ways in which Obama has begun to deliver on his promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances:

Marijuana Legalization. Although the federal government cannot stop states from legalizing marijuana, it can make trouble for the ones that do by targeting state-licensed growers and retailers. Under a policy announced in August 2013, the Justice Department has declined to do so, reserving its resources for cannabis operations that violate state law or implicate "federal law enforcement priorities." The department also has refrained from challenging state marijuana regulations in court, a strategy that could have delayed the opening of cannabusinesses in Colorado and Washington even if it was ultimately unsuccessful. In a New Yorker interview last January, Obama said "it's important for [legalization] to go forward" in those states. Speaking to reporters at the U.N. last October, William Brownfield, the assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, said international anti-drug treaties should be interpreted to allow such experiments.

Unlike earlier promises of forbearance regarding medical marijuana, the respect for state policy choices signaled in that 2013 memo has visibly restrained the actions of U.S. attorneys and the Drug Enforcement Administration. "They've reversed course on marijuana after, I guess, previously reversing course on marijuana," says Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. "They've reverted back to their original position, before they launched the biggest crackdown on medical marijuana ever. They had to have put their foot down, because there's been such a substantive change with respect to the raids. I think the politics shifted even further, to the point where some of the U.S. attorneys may have just given up."

Federal Marijuana Ban. After Obama observed, in his interview with The New Yorker, that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, CNN's Jake Tapper asked him whether he was open to reclassifying marijuana. "What is and isn't a Schedule I narcotic is a job for Congress," Obama replied. "It's not something by ourselves that we start changing. No, there are laws undergirding those determinations."

That response was highly misleading and evasive, especially compared to Obama's candor regarding the relative hazards of marijuana and alcohol. Contrary to the impression left by the president, the executive branch has the authority to reschedule marijuana without new legislation from Congress. In September, a few days before announcing that he planned to step down soon, Holder said whether marijuana belongs in the same category as heroin is "certainly a question that we need to ask ourselves." Since the Controlled Substances Act empowers Holder to reclassify marijuana, it would have been nice if he had asked that question a little sooner. Still, Holder was willing to publicly question marijuana's Schedule I status, something no sitting attorney general had done before.

Sentencing Reform. Obama supports the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make the 2010 crack penalty changes retroactive, cut the mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses in half, and loosen the criteria for the "safety valve" that allows some defendants to escape mandatory minimums. Beginning last year, Holder has repeatedly criticized our criminal justice system as excessively harsh. Under a new charging policy he established last year, hundreds of drug offenders could avoid mandatory minimums each year.

"The first term vs. the second term has been almost like night and day on criminal justice reform," Piper says. "We see that especially with what Holder has done administratively. But they've also pushed much more strongly for sentencing reform than they have in the past."

Clemency. After a pitiful performance in his first term, Obama has signaled a new openness to clemency petitions. Last April an unnamed "senior administration official" told Yahoo News the administration's new clemency guidelines could result in "hundreds, perhaps thousands," of commutations. Obama's total so far, counting eight commutations announced a few weeks ago, is just 18, but he still has two years to go. He already has surpassed George H.W. Bush (who commuted three sentences in four years), George W. Bush (11 in eight years), and Ronald Reagan (13 in eight years). Obama still trails, among others, Bill Clinton (61 in eight years), Jimmy Carter (29 in four years), Gerald Ford (22 in 29 months), and that old softie, Richard Nixon (60 in 67 months).

A few months ago, Obama chose former ACLU attorney Vanita Gupta, a passionate critic of the war on drugs who emphasizes its disproportionate racial impact (a theme Obama and Holder also have taken up), to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. A year before her appointment, Gupta had criticized Holder's moves on drug sentencing as an inadequate response to mass incarceration. The previous month, she had endorsed marijuana legalization. The next two years will show whether Gupta's appointment is a sop to disappointed Obama supporters or a signal of bolder steps to come.

If Obama actually uses his clemency power to free thousands, or even hundreds, of drug war prisoners, that would be historically unprecedented, and it would go a long way toward making up for his initial reticence. He could help even more people by backing sentencing reform, which has attracted bipartisan support in Congress. And having announced that states should be free to experiment with marijuana legalization, he could declare the experiment a success. "I'm waiting for the president to come out and say his views are evolving on marijuana," says Piper.

If none of those things happens, Obama's most significant drug policy accomplishment may be letting states go their own way on marijuana legalization. Even if our next president is a Republican drug warrior, he will have a hard time reversing that decision, especially given the GOP's lip service to federalism.

"The toothpaste is out of the tube, and I don't think there's any putting it back," Piper says. "Even if the next president really wants to crack down, I don't think they're going to be able to. They might be able to create chaos, and some people will go to jail, but I don't think there's any stopping legalization at this point."

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.

NEXT: Reader poll on changes at the Volokh Conspiracy

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Indict the Choom Gang.

  2. These are some pretty small steps for a guy who was able to find the political will to incompetently nationalize a 6th of our economy.

    1. hAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHA
      yeah theres that

  3. Obama wet his finger and stuck it in the air. Good for him, I guess.

    1. He has commuted 8 fucking sentences. If Obama is good on drug policy for that, then George Bush was a regular Libertarian since he commuted many more sentences than Obama and did so throughout his term, not just at the end when he is looking to make amends.

      On this issue like every other he claims to be good on, Obama is a fraud.

      1. They were sentenced for fucking?! Good thing they were commuted, then.

        1. Not for, but to.

      2. On this issue like every other he claims to be good on, Obama is a fraud.

        Agreed. It’s unbelievable that, at this late point in the game, some people still haven’t realized that Obama’s a pathological liar on pretty much every topic.

        He could claim he’s stopping enforcement of drug laws tomorrow…if his actions, however, don’t back that up then it doesn’t matter what he claims he’s going to do.

  4. “its disproportionate racial impact”

    So not out of a sense of true injustice – if it was Asians getting locked up, who cares?

    1. Disproprtionate racial impact might, just might, have something to do with ‘a sense of true injustice.’

      1. Only if you are fucking moron. It is either wrong to lock people up for decades for using or selling the wrong substance or it isn’t. The fact that such a policy results in more of this or that victim group being locked up has nothing to do with it. If it did, then Obama could solve the problem by just releasing enough black people or locking up more white people to even the numbers out. Are you actually so simple minded that you think that letting a few black prisoners out of prison somehow will make the white prisoners who stay there because of drug offenses less unjust?

        1. It’s a different kind of unfair to lock, say, black people up for significantly longer than white people, for crimes that are essentially the same thing.

          1. But that is not what is happening. A white person gets the same sentence for crack as a black person. It is just that blacks get convicted for crack more. If you think it is wrong to sentence people more for selling crack, and I agree it is, the solution is to stop sending people to prison for it, not to worry about how many black or white people are effected.

            1. While I somewhat agree with your larger point, racial sentencing disparities are real and significant.

    2. Indeed, locking up more Asians would probably help “level the playing field”.

      1. It’s only “fair”!

  5. I guess baby steps are better than none at all.

  6. What Michelle said I cant believe that anybody able to get paid $4819 in four weeks on the internet .
    You could try here ~~~~~~~ http://www.jobs700.com

  7. Under a policy announced in August 2013, the Justice Department has declined to do so, reserving its resources for cannabis operations that violate state law or implicate “federal law enforcement priorities.”

    That’s exactly the same policy they announced in 2009(?), shortly before ramping up enforcement against medpot operations.

    More wishful thinking from those yearning for a proggytarian alliance.

    the respect for state policy choices signaled in that 2013 memo has visibly restrained the actions of U.S. attorneys and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

    A little data would be helpful at this point, as in, how many raids before and after the 2013 press release? Absent that data, I see no reason to believe that repeating a policy adopted in 2009 has led to any change in enforcement activity.

  8. Last April an unnamed “senior administration official” told Yahoo News the administration’s new clemency guidelines could result in “hundreds, perhaps thousands,” of commutations.

    Oh, fer fux sake. Counting an anonymous leak as a win, even when it patently hasn’t come true?

    More wishful thinking from those yearning for a proggytarian alliance.

  9. Monsanto now has invested millions in GMO pot fields, its only a matter of time before its legal everywhere, you know just like tobacco.

  10. my buddy’s mother makes $72 /hr on the internet . She has been without work for 5 months but last month her payment was $12076 just working on the internet for a few hours. read more…………
    ????? http://www.netjob70.com

  11. For additional hilarity on Obama’s pot “policy”:

    President Obama defended his administration’s crackdown on some medical marijuana dispensaries, saying he could not ask the Justice Department to ignore federal law.

    “I can’t nullify congressional law,” he told Rolling Stone in a new interview.

    http://thehill.com/policy/heal…..spensaries

    More:

    Obama sought to clarify an apparent change in course in his policies and address criticism from troubled supporters who remember his comments ? in 2008 ? that he would not use federal resources to “try and circumvent state laws about medical marijuana.”

    Attorney General Eric Holder echoed that commitment in a 2009 memo stating that users and dispensaries that comply with state and local laws would not be a priority for the Justice Department.

  12. Has the DOJ stopped threatening banks that do business with legal pot dealers? No? Then fuck off with this ridiculous talk that he’s a reformer now.

    It doesn’t matter what Obama *says* or *claims* he supports. It matters what he *does*…and what he’s done for his tenure is crack down on drugs. At some point, Sullum will just have to accept that nothing that comes out of Obama’s mouth can ever be trusted, because the man lies about absolutely everything.

  13. my friend’s sister makes $68 an hour on the laptop . She has been without work for 10 months but last month her check was $21549 just working on the laptop for a few hours. browse this site……….
    ????? http://www.netjob70.com

  14. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for 74 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail
    ————- http://www.paygazette.com

  15. my friend’s sister makes $68 an hour on the laptop . She has been without work for 10 months but last month her check was $21549 just working on the laptop for a few hours. browse this site……….
    ????? http://www.netjob70.com

  16. I consider it more than likely a Republican president in 2017 will rollback the liberalization of marijuana laws as much as possible, “federalism” be damned. “Federalism” is only used by Republicans to fight against federal intrusion over issues Team Red cares about (the ability to neuter the ACA, abortion restrictions, liberalized gun laws, etc.).

    Just look at what the Republican AGs of NE and OK are doing: suing CO in the Supreme Court to force that state to enforce federal law. This is despite these AGs relying upon federalism arguments to prevent ACA expansion in their respective states. And, far more dangerously, despite the fact that if they win ANY of their novel arguments before the Supremes, states’ power versus the federal government will be weakened to an incredible degree.

    If NE/OK only win on standing, ANY federal law that a state itself does not enforce to the fullest degree can allow other states to sue for injunctive relief if they can come up with any “harm”. A win on the merits would be utterly disastrous, essentially the end of the saying that states are “laboratories of democracy” in this country.

    1. I wouldn’t expect that argument to work on the members of the commentariat who seem to think the opposite of Libertarian is Democrat.

  17. He sure ‘evolved’ in a flash when there was all that sweet, sweet, gay political nectar to be harvested. Although I guess it’s pretty hard for stoners to organize the way gays did when they can’t even remember where they parked their car…or if they even had one.

  18. As always, the threads here remind me that the majority of my fellow libertarians (at least the ones who post here) are too bitter and resentful to see the truth even when their faces are rubbed in it. Obama isn’t as bad as Bush. And I’ll go out on a limb and say that his party isn’t as bad as the others.

    Yes, they’re annoying, but you’re probably just a knee-jerk idiot.

    1. i agree COMPLETELY. thats why Obama shut down guantanemo, ended the wars in iraq in afghanistan, stopped domestic surveillance, and stopped the drug war.

      oh, wait …

  19. If OK and NE win Colorado will have to shut down all legal distribution. However, CO can’t be forced to arrest people.

  20. just before I looked at the draft four $9879 , I didn’t believe that…my… father in law had been truly erning money part time from there computar. . there dads buddy has done this for only 21 months and just repaid the dept on their apartment and bourt a great Land Rover Range Rover .
    Read More Here ~~~~~~~~ http://www.jobsfish.com

  21. just before I looked at the draft four $9879 , I didn’t believe that…my… father in law had been truly erning money part time from there computar. . there dads buddy has done this for only 21 months and just repaid the dept on their apartment and bourt a great Land Rover Range Rover .
    Read More Here ~~~~~~~~ http://www.jobs700.com

  22. my neighbor’s step-aunt makes $80 an hour on the internet . She has been laid off for five months but last month her payment was $12901 just working on the internet for a few hours.
    website here……..
    ???????? http://www.paygazette.com

  23. More navel gazing bullshit. There will be no wide-ranging clemency orders. The drug war will continue to escalate on all levels, regardless even of state legalization, through DUI laws. Its been close to 7 years of this shit, people. Time to pull your head out of Obamas ass.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.