XVI. Obama’s Retreat From an Enlightened Drug Policy

Although the discussion in this blog section thus far has focused on illegal drugs, according to Michael Specter, writing in the October 17, 2011 the New Yorker, misuse of legally sold prescription medications has become a bigger problem than the sale of narcotics or cocaine. Specter’s contention is given statistical verification by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The former estimates that serious drug reactions occur more than two million times each year among patients in hospitals and are the fourth leading cause of hospital deaths, topped only by heart disease, cancer and strokes. The latter estimates that more than 75 percent of Americans age 60 and over take two or more prescription drugs and 37 percent use at least five.

Adverse drug effects send about 4.5 million Americans to doctors’ offices or the emergency room each year.

The state of Florida has become the prescription pill-mill of the United States and heavy media attention to the easy availability of prescription medications has spurred a greater effort by law enforcement agencies to close the pill-mills.

In 2001, Portugal became the first nation to fully decriminalize personal  drug use, after frustratingly concluding that their own aggressive war on drugs was not working. Public health workers dispense drugs to users at designated locations and provide users with fresh needles for drug injection. Portugal is not ready to call their experiment an unmitigated success, but it has, at least, permitted the criminal justice system to focus on more significant criminals and more dangerous crimes.

In Portugal, more than 90 percent of drug costs are devoted to treatment, not enforcement. According to the previously referenced Michael Specter, U.S. federal health officials have estimated that every dollar spent on substance-abuse treatment saves the U.S. $7 that would be spent on prisons, police and courts. Again, according to Specter, in the United States, 70 percent of inmates tested positive for illicit drugs when they were arrested; also, substance-abuse is by far the most common reason for parole violation.

Supporting a habit is a common reason for criminal behavior. Since the 1980s, most of the correctional expenditures can be attributed directly to drug abuse.

Summarizing the illicit drug industry: it has empowered organized criminals; corrupted governments at all levels; eroded internal security; stimulated violence; distorted both economic markets and moral values.

The Obama administration claims some positive accomplishments in reducing the severity of drug law enforcement and reducing the rate of recidivism: 1) the Fair Sentencing Act has reduced the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine from about 100-to-1 to about 28-to-1; 2) expansion of drug courts has seen 2,500 courts diverting about 120,000 people a year into treatment, not prison; 3) the Second Chance Act has reduced recidivism; and 4) rules have been relaxed to allow ex-offenders access to public housing.

Yet Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance who was hopeful in the early months of the Obama administration, had become disillusioned by late in 2011, when he accused President Obama of “betraying promises made when he ran for office and turning his back on the sensible policies announced during his first year in office.”

What Should Obama Do or Have Done?

It isn’t only the big-name Global Commission on Drug Policy that has concluded that the War on Drugs has failed and decriminalization and legalization of some drugs, especially marijuana, should be subject to experimentation. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), made up of current and former members of the law enforcement and criminal justice communities, has also called for an end to the War on Drugs.

It would have been far too much to expert that given the accumulated problems that Barack Obama faced when taking office that he should have called for the end to the War on Drugs. Yet there are some drug-related actions that Obama should have taken and some he should have not.

Instead of raiding medical marijuana dispensaries and taking actions to criminalize what many states had made legal in regard to growing, using and transporting marijuana, the Obama administration should have adopted a “hands off” approach. Those folks who were benefiting from their state’s marijuana program were put in an almost impossible position of not knowing if their participation in a legal state program might subject them to federal prosecution.

President Obama could have backed and promoted HR 2306, which decriminalized marijuana at the national level and allowed states to make their own marijuana laws.

As for ending the War on Drugs, Obama could have used his bully pulpit to start making the case that the War on Drugs had become a very costly failure and that every dollar put into treatment would save several dollars in law enforcement, court and prison costs.

Both human rights groups and labor unions have lamented over sending billions of dollars in drug-fighting money to a Colombian government that hasn’t taken any effective counter-action against the killing of many labor union leaders and activists.

The Obama administration continues to deploy 1,200 National Guard troops on the U.S.-Mexico border. Although the continuance of the Guard deployment falls most logically under a blog on immigration, there is an illicit drug component to it, because the Guard troops are not authorized to have a role in drug interdiction. Thus, when the cost effectiveness of the National Guard deployment is coming under increasing criticism, its non-involvement in stopping the drug trade across the border is another reason for removing the National Guard troops.

The 1,200 National Guard troops have helped Border Patrol agents apprehend 25,514 illegal immigrants at a cost of $160 million, or $6,271 for every person caught. Since National Guard troops must work in pairs due to force protection concerns, it means it takes three persons to apprehend every illegal person.

The Guard deployment at the border is beginning to look very political in nature.


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