Obama’s Drug Policy: Yet Another Broken Promise

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White House Drug Policy Bound to Become Major Administration Issue

  • When Obama first took office in 2009, he promised a drug policy more focused on public health. However, recent statements from the DEA and raids on medical marijuana providers have proved  otherwise.
  • External pressures are escalating as drug cartel-led violence across the border intensifies. Internal pressures are also becoming more widespread, as the public is seeing few changes affecting drug policy.
  • Obama should seriously consider re-evaluating his approach to drug policy for his 2012 campaign.



A Promise for Change

Obama entered the Oval Office promising to change national drug policy. He proposed altering the current U.S. approach, suggesting that the war on drugs be re-categorized as a public health issue. Obama’s unprecedented admission to previous cocaine use[i] led to the hope that his stance on narcotics would be more understanding and compassionate than the war on drugs initiated by  Nixon  in 1971. For example, upon taking office in 2009, Obama’s newly appointed drug czar Gil Kerlikowske claimed that the war on drugs had ended. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in May 2009, Kerlikowske observed that: “Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs’ … people see a war as a war on them,” he said. “We’re not at war with people in this country.”[ii]

At the beginning of  Obama’s presidency, as well as today, the United States had priorities other than revising  U.S. drug policy. With the economy in crisis and the Middle East in  uproar, drug policy has taken a justifiable backseat.  Drug violence has dramatically worsened south of the border since President Felipe Calderón took office in Mexico.  Also, with the recent determination by the federal government that marijuana remains a dangerous drug “with no accepted medical use,” inside and outside sources are increasingly pressuring the administration to take definitive action. Obama’s unwillingness to develop significant changes in drug policy has therefore become a source of tension in Washington.


A Stagnant Situation

Obama’s two and a half years as president have produced no significant progressive change concerning U.S. drug policy. Since 2009, drug policy reform initiatives have been state-led instead of directed by the federal government, and many states, including California and New York, have legalized or decriminalized marijuana.[iii] This past month, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced that “the federal government has ruled that [marijuana] has no accepted medical use and should remain classified as a dangerous drug like heroin.”[iv] According to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, heroin is marked as the most dangerous drug with a risk factor of about 2.8, while cannabis is listed as having a risk factor of 1.3. These two drugs clearly do not pose the same dangers, despite being put in the same category. On the other hand, alcohol, which is legal in the United States, has a risk factor of 1.9.[v] However, both marijuana and heroin are considered schedule I drugs, which comprises “substances in this schedule have a high potential for abuse, have no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.”[vi] Since heroin and marijuana are both put under this same umbrella, the dangers of marijuana are thus considerably overestimated, especially compared to more dangerous drugs.

Nine years after medical marijuana supporters petitioned the government to reclassify the drug, the DEA’s de-legitimization of medical marijuana left states that had legalized it dumbfounded by the resulting contradiction between state and federal laws.[vii] Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole also claimed that “Marijuana is illegal, and the federal government can prosecute any user at any time for growing, selling, or transporting it, state law be damned.”[viii] While medical marijuana had been decriminalized in a number of states, federal laws now considers it to be no different than recreational marijuana, a Schedule I drug. On July 6, 2011, four medical marijuana dispensaries were busted by the police in Kent City, Washington.[ix]

As the federal government represses the legal growth and distribution of marijuana domestically and internationally, it fosters the expansion  of illegal distribution, and even indirectly supports violent Mexican drug cartels. South of the border, since Mexican President Felipe Calderón enacted his own counterproductive campaign against drug-related crime, drug-related violence has claimed the lives of nearly 40,000 people in Mexico, representing a troubling 500% increase in homicides from 2007 to 2008.[x]



Undermined External Pleas for Action

International bodies ranging from high commissions composed of world leaders to popular movements have called for action. At the beginning of June, The Global Commission on Drug Policy drafted a report admitting that the war on drugs has failed, and urged policy-makers, particularly in the United States, to reexamine the goals and methods of draconian drug laws. The report advised countries to experiment with decriminalization and legalization of some narcotics, especially marijuana.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy grew out of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, headed by former Latin American presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, César Gaviria of Colombia and the current head of the Global Commission, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil. The Global Commission also includes former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan and myriad other intellectuals, businessmen, human rights activists and policymakers.[xi] César Gaviria pronounced, after the report was released, “We can no longer ignore the extent to which drug-related violence, crime and corruption in Latin America are the results of failed drug war policies.”[xii] However, despite the political and intellectual clout wielded by the members of the Global Commission, the United States, through the Office on National Drug Control Policy, responded to the Commission’s report with a defensive press release focusing on the positive effects of the war on drugs. It said: “The Obama Administration’s efforts to reduce drug use are not born out of a culture war or drug war mentality, but out of the recognition that drug use strains our economy, health, and public safety.”[xiii]

The drug war violence  that plagues Mexico has also spurred new calls for action. Javier Sicilia, leader of a national popular movement, the “National Movement for Peace,” has begged the Obama administration to stop the war. In an interview with Laura Carlsen, of the Center for International Policy, he said: “The United States imposed this war on us, it should change the strategy,” and added, “Behind each one of those drug users, people like Charlie Sheen or Paris Hilton that promote drug use, that promote drug use publicly, behind all of that and behind all of the weapons there are the dead.”[xiv] In other words, people use drugs carelessly since they are being endorsed by celebrities. The media is not considering the utterly grim toll of current drug policies. Yet, the Obama administration’s response to this slew of pleas has been little more than silence.

Due to stratospheric levels of gun trafficking from the United States to Mexico, numerous petitions have been drawn up asking for action against arms trafficking. A notable petition was drafted by Alianza Cívica, a Mexican civic group focused on citizen security, along with many Mexican and U.S. law enforcement organizations, which currently has over 9000 top signatures.[xv] As reported in a recent article by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Mexican violence is largely fueled by illegal gun trafficking from the United States, which provides significant  firepower to drug cartels.[xvi] It seems that out of all the pleas, the call to end arms trafficking has been heard. On July 11th, the federal government “approved a new regulation requiring firearms dealers along the Southwest border to report multiple sales of certain semiautomatic rifles.”[xvii] As expected, this new regulation has been highly contested by pro-gun interest groups, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA). Powerful U.S. bodies such as the NRA have threatened to sue the government once this regulation goes into effect, although it is questionable whether the organizations will be able to block the law or not.[xviii]


Ignored Internal Pressures

Even domestic organizations, such as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), have lent their voices  to end the hugely costly war on drugs. LEAP is a group “made up of current and former members of the law enforcement and criminal justice communities who are speaking out on the failures of our existing drug policies.”[xix] In June 2011, LEAP called for a hearing with drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, who reportedly had  frequently refused to talk to his former co-workers and members of LEAP. He did, however, issue a press release claiming that current drug policy has succeeded,  which pointed to statistics that claimed that drug consumption has decreased since the 1970s. [xx]

Kerlikowske’s claims lead many to ask: At what cost has this so-called victory been won? Every year, law-enforcement agents apprehend thousands of U.S. citizens for non-violent drug-related crimes, such as simple marijuana possession. Overwhelmingly, African-Americans and Latinos are the victims of these drug busts.[xxi] These newly discerned trends have raised many concerns about U.S. drug policy.

Furthermore, it is clear that the emergence of a new drug policy is on Washington’s mind. On July 5th, for example, right after the celebration of the 235th anniversary of the Independence of the United States, President Obama held his first “Twitter Town Hall,” in which citizens submitted questions to the President through the social media website. The most frequent question posed was: “Would you consider legalizing marijuana to increase revenue and save tax dollars by freeing up crowded prisons, [and] court rooms?”[xxii] Unfortunately, President Obama completely ignored this question.[xxiii]

In June 2011, Representatives Ron Paul (R-TX) and Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced the HR 2306 bill, which would repeal the federal ban on marijuana. Dubbed the “legalization bill” by the media, HR 2306 does not explicitly promote marijuana legalization; rather, it advocates granting states the power to determine their own marijuana laws, revoking the federal ban on marijuana. It also proposes to alter the status of marijuana to differentiate it from more dangerous drugs, such as heroin.[xxiv]

However, the Associated Press has reported that the bill appears to be “doomed upon arrival,” as the House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) has claimed he would not even consider it. Critics argue that marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to more dangerous substances. However, this does not explain why marijuana has been placed in the same category as a significantly more dangerous drug like heroin. Another argument against legalization is that legalizing marijuana would fuel the wave of violence across the border in Mexico.[xxv] Advocates of legalization argue that it would make criminal organizations that profit from its illegality obsolete. They  equate marijuana prohibition to alcohol prohibition at the beginning of the twentieth century, and compare the  increasing U.S. crime rates in the early 1900s to the lawlessness currently plaguing Mexico. Illegality creates black markets controlled by violent drug cartels, whereas legality would let the government control the substance.

Some have argued that legalizing marijuana would not completely destroy drug cartels, since they could move into other businesses such as piracy. However, there is a significant difference between the drug trade and other businesses. Drugs, for example, are more likely to be abused and regularly sought after than piracy. Also, in the short run, marijuana represents at least 60 percent of drug cartel business, so legalization would deal a telling blow to their commercial activities.[xxvi] Even though HR 2306 is likely to fail, it is the first bill of its kind, and hopefully it indicates that a more progressive U.S. drug policy may be on its way. [xxvii]



Politics-induced Stagnation

Despite these numerous, and increasing, pleas for action, the Obama administration has shamelessly ignored all calls for change. Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske has claimed that marijuana legalization would not be an effective way to conclude the war on drugs, and that  he already had ended this conflict. In truth, Washington is still waging the war on drugs, and has just surreptitiously done little more than changed its name.

As the 2012 elections approach, large policy issues—notably drug matters—are coming to the fore. It is clear from the Twitter Town Hall, as well as the urgent situation in Mexico, that drug policy is an increasingly visible and most important social issue. Were a Republican to become president, any change in drug policy would depend largely on the individual nominee. Although libertarian Republican candidates, such as Ron Paul, call for legalization, they are unlikely to be nominated. Mitt Romney, who holds relatively retrogressive views on drugs, currently leads the Republican race. So far, he has said that he supports the militarization of the war on drugs abroad, as well as an intense prohibition within the United States, stating, “The U.S. must continue to provide strong support for Colombia’s efforts to combat the ruthless narco-terrorists that operate there. Our partnership with Colombia contributes to our security and our quality of life—sowing stability in a critical region and helping keep deadly drugs off our streets.”[xxviii] Most of the other Republican candidates have expressed similar, if not more conservative views, but all of them appear to be unlettered in the more sophisticated aspects of anti-drug wars.

The fast-approaching elections of 2012 should encourage President Obama to take action. Despite the President’s failed promises, his drug policies represent the lesser of two evils in comparison to some of the more conservative plans. The United States’ drug policy, to date, has been draconian and regressive. Regardless of who wins, it must be revisited in order to solve public health problems within the United States, and without violence abroad. Hopefully, if Obama is re-elected in 2012, his administration will shun cowering in favor of enacting a constructive series of drug policy reforms.

References to this article can be found here.