XVI. Obama’s Retreat From an Enlightened Drug Policy

In a long answer that Barack Obama gave on September 29, 2007, to a question about his position on drugs, he raised hopes that he would bring a more enlightened approach to U.S. drug policy. In regard to non-violent drug offenders, Obama said: “The worst thing we can do is lock them up.” He said that training and education should be core components of a national drug policy; also, he alluded to the U.S. having the highest percentage of its citizens in prison in the world, due, in large part, to locking up drug offenders. Once more, he remarked on the racial component of drug enforcement.

The first indication that the Obama administration’s approach to drug enforcement was going to be a more complicated affair came in March 2009, when President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden introduced Gil Karlikowske as the new drug czar. Karlikowske, once involved in a needle exchange program, said that the best way “to reduce the flow of drugs” is to “reduce demand for them.”

In his turn at the mike, Biden described an entirely different approach to what the new White House policy would be, when he said that “more cops on the beat is one of the best ways to keep drugs off the street.” Biden also alluded to his role in getting grants to police departments to help them fight drug trafficking.

It didn’t take long for the realization to set in that the Obama administration was following the inherited policy on trying to crush the Colombian drug cartels and that it was solidly behind a hard-line, military-led anti-drug campaign in Mexico. It also became clear that the Obama White House was being far more aggressive than had been the Bush administration in conducting raids in states in which the growing or possessing of small amounts of marijuana had been decriminalized — in 25 states and the District of Colombia. It wasn’t only federal agents that were raiding medical marijuana dispensaries, as, for instance, on July 6, 2011, four medical dispensaries were busted by police in Kent City, Washington.

It wasn’t until the Global Commission on Drug Policy drafted a report on June 20, 2011, admitting that the War on Drugs had failed, that the U.S. government began to explicitly state its drug policy. The Global Commission advised countries to experiment with decriminalization and legalization of some narcotics, especially marijuana. The Office on national Drug Control Policy responded: “The Obama administration’s efforts to reduce drug use are not born out of a culture war or drug war mentality but out of recognition that drug use strains our economy, health, and public safety.”

Around the same time, the Drug Enforcement Administration said that “the federal government has ruled that (marijuana) has no accepted medical use and should remain classified as a dangerous drug as heroin.” Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole minced no words when he said: “Marijuana is illegal, and the federal government can prosecute any user at any time for growing, selling, or transporting it, state law be damned.” Cole added that medical marijuana was no different from recreational marijuana use, because, either way, they were Schedule I drugs.

On October 10, 2011, the Drug Policy Alliance issued a press release condemning the statement by U.S. Attorneys in California, who warned they will shut down marijuana dispensaries, prosecute landlords and seize properties, notwithstanding state law. The extent of the national government’s assault on legitimized marijuana is revealed by: 1) the Treasury Department forcing banks in Colorado to close accounts of medical marijuana businesses operating legally under state law; 2) the IRS not recognizing legitimate business expenses of dispensaries; and 3) the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives ruling that state-sanctioned medical marijuana patients cannot legally possess firearms.

The next blog will discuss the explosion in the misuse of prescription drugs; explore Portugal’s experiment in decriminalizing personal drug use; describe positive actions President Obama has taken on drugs; and suggest other approaches Obama should have taken on drugs.

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