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Bummer: Barack Obama Turns Out to be Just Another Drug Warrior

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: When asked to characterize the “politics” of Points, it’s become my habit to describe our collective vibe as “Left-Libertarian.” The term may sound like an oxymoron in this moment of Tea Party ascendancy, but as I noted last week, though the two stances are typically depicted as mutually exclusive in mainstream political culture, folks interested in drug history and policy tend to embrace elements of both: I’ll have a little less government when it comes to criminal justice and personal liberties, but I’d like to keep my structural (rather than rational choice) explanations for crime, addiction, and dysfunction, and of course I want government programs to help me address the social problems they cause. Two great tastes that taste great together! If they aren’t busy being raptured on October 21st, maybe a few smart people from Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party can take the day to sit down together and try to figure out a coherent theory of government that can contain both positions– hell, maybe Ron Paul got one from the aliens already.

For now, at least, Points is a blog, not a think tank, so we’re not likely to come up with such a theory on our own. But what we can do is to keep pressing on policy issues with tools from various academic disciplines–and also insist that we view (and re-view) them through diverse political lenses. The academy frowns on such intellectual mash-ups, and god knows the segmented traditional media don’t want to sully their echo chambers with any contrarian voices (yeah, Rupert Murdoch, I’m talking to you AND to you, Katrina Vanden Heuvel).

It’s with this aggressive heterodoxy in mind that Points presents today a cross-posting from the libertarian organ Reason–Senior Editor Jacob Sullum’s in-depth look at President Obama’s dismal performance in the drug policy arena. Sullum is the author of Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use (Tarcher, 2004) and For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health (Free Press, 1998). We re-post the first section of his article here; the rest, which covers Obama’s senate voting record, his position on sentencing reform, his use of clemency powers, and the tensions between his avowed interest in “public health approaches” to drug problems and his record of relying on interdiction and police powers– all that can be found in the link at the end.

It is not hard to see how critics of the war on drugs got the impression that Barack Obama was sympathetic to their cause. Throughout his public life as an author, law professor, and politician, Obama has said and done things that suggested he was not a run-of-the-mill drug warrior. In his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, the future president talked candidly about his own youthful drug use, in sharp contrast with the Democrat who then occupied the White House and the Republican who succeeded him. As an Illinois state senator in 2001, he criticized excessively harsh drug sentences and sponsored a bill that allowed nonviolent, low-level offenders to enter court-supervised treatment instead of going to jail, saying “we can’t continue to incarcerate ourselves out of the drug crisis.”As a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama called the war on drugs “an utter failure” and advocated marijuana decriminalization. As a U.S. senator, he cosponsored legislation aimed at reducing the federal government’s draconian crack cocaine sentences. Unlike Bill Clinton, who notoriously admitted smoking pot while claiming he “didn’t inhale,” Sen. Obama forthrightly told a 2006 meeting of magazine editors, “When I was a kid, I inhaled, frequently. That was the point.”

Obama stood apart from hard-line prohibitionists even when he began running for president. In 2007 and 2008, he bemoaned America’s high incarceration rate, warned that the racially disproportionate impact of drug prohibition undermines legal equality, advocated a “public health” approach to drugs emphasizing treatment and training instead of prison, repeatedly indicated that he would take a more tolerant position regarding medical marijuana than George W. Bush, and criticized the Bush administration for twisting science to support policy—a tendency that is nowhere more blatant than in the government’s arbitrary distinctions among psychoactive substances.

No Caption Necessary

The promise of a more enlightened, less repressive national drug policy generated considerable excitement among anti-prohibition activists. Marsha Rosenbaum left her job as head of the Drug Policy Alliance’s San Francisco office to raise money for Obama. The young senator also attracted significant support from three billionaire philanthropists—George Soros, Peter Lewis, and John Sperling—who are among the leading benefactors of drug policy reform. “I was delighted” at the prospect of an Obama victory, recalls Rick Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. “[I was] encouraged that President Obama was going to be much, much better than President Bush when it comes to drug policy.”

According to Obama’s drug czar, the president has indeed made a sharp break with the failed policies of the past. “We certainly ended the drug war, now almost two years ago,” Gil Kerlikowske declared on Seattle’s PBS station last March. Kerlikowske was referring to an interview he gave The Wall Street Journal three months after Obama picked him to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs,’ ” the former Seattle police chief told the Journal, “people see a war as a war on them. We’re not at war with people in this country.” According to the Journal, Kerlikowske’s distaste for martial metaphors was “a signal that the Obama administration is set to follow a more moderate—and likely more controversial—stance on the nation’s drug problems,” dealing with drugs “as a matter of public health rather than criminal justice alone, with treatment’s role growing relative to incarceration.”

So far this much-ballyhooed shift has not been perceptible in Obama’s drug control budgets. Even if it were, moving money from law enforcement to “treatment and prevention” would hardly amount to ending the war on drugs.

Do No Harm, Dude

Kerlikowske’s earnest insistence that you can end the war on drugs if you stop calling it that gives you a sense of the chasm between rhetoric and reality in Obama’s drug policies, which by and large have been remarkably similar to his predecessor’s. With the major exception of crack sentences, which were substantially reduced by a law the administration supported, Obama has not delivered what reformers hoped he would. His most conspicuous failure has been his policy on medical marijuana, which is in some ways even more aggressively intolerant than George W. Bush’s, featuring more-frequent raids by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), ruinous IRS audits, and threats of prosecution against not only dispensaries but anyone who deals with them. “I initially had high hopes,” says Marsha Rosenbaum, “but now believe Obama has abdicated drug policy to the DEA.”

It would be going too far to say that Obama has been faking it all these years, that he does not really care about the injustices perpetrated in the name of protecting Americans from the drugs they want. But he clearly does not care enough to change the course of the life-wrecking, havoc-wreaking war on drugs. [Continue reading at]


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