With focus on demand rather than supply, Barack Obama gives hope to critics of U.S. ‘war on drugs’

Elana Schor Contributor
Font Size:

In its first year, the Obama White House quietly has given critics of the nation’s 40-year “war on drugs” something rarely seen in their ranks: hope that the days of punitive, enforcement-first U.S. policy could be coming to a close.

With the Department of Justice agreeing to recognize state laws that legalize medical marijuana and Congress ending the decades-long ban on federal money for needle exchanges, advocates for tackling drug demand, rather than supply — by treating addicts and easing access for others — counted two crucial victories in 2009. If anything, their lingering question has become how much more Obama and the Democrats can do without encountering blowback or losing their political will.

“For the first time in many, many years, the wind is at our back instead of our face,” the director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Bill Piper, told The Daily Caller.

The government relations director at the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), Aaron Houston, described the recent drug-policy moves as “the beginning of the fall of the Berlin wall of prohibition.”

“These are substantial, earth-moving changes,” he said. “We’re going to see the results of these changes, and policymakers are more likely to be willing and understanding.”

At least one of the drug war’s best-known commanders agrees that the door has opened to a new era. Asa Hutchinson, the Arkansan who headed George W. Bush’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said Obama had ushered in “a significant and dramatic change in drug policy.”

Not that Hutchinson was surprised with Obama’s early de-escalation. “I disagree with the policies, but he is doing what he campaigned on,” the former House Republican said in an interview.

“But what he has done is simply open the door to give more arguments to the drug legalizers, and [the issue] will end up being on many states’ public initiatives that people have a chance to vote on.”

Supporters of a California ballot initiative regulating and taxing legal marijuana already claim to have enough signatures for a vote in November. Maine approved licensing for medical pot dispensaries last year, and New Jersey is nearing passage of its own similar law, perhaps as soon as today.

Rhode Island went a step further in July, creating a commission to study the effects of decriminalizing marijuana. Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron, a legalization proponent who serves on that commission, agreed that Obama’s approach to drugs would bring about “better outcomes overall” but preached more caution than optimism.

“Unlike most legalizers, I’m libertarian, not liberal,” Miron explained in an interview. “As a more pragmatic matter, I don’t see it in [Obama’s] interest as a politician to go much farther than he’s gone.”

That assessment could hold true this year, particularly as the midterm elections keep Democrats focused on the ailing economy. The two best bets for congressional action are Sen. Jim Webb’s (D-VA) bill empowering a criminal justice panel to propose broad drug enforcement reforms and a bid, long in the works, to eliminate the 100 to 1 sentencing disparity between cocaine and crack offenders.

What’s more difficult to predict is how this gradual rebalancing of U.S. drug policy would play out during a second Obama term, if he wins re-election. Piper, of the DPA, predicted that this year’s initial changes “will be a down payment on full reform, which would be — on the federal level — completely eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing and decriminalizing low-level possession” of marijuana.

Neill Franklin, a former colonel with the Baltimore police and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said an interview that he too sees federal movement on legalization after 2012, if Obama remains in office.

But no advocate was prepared to forecast similar relaxation of limits on cocaine or other drugs. Most emphasized that state governments — as well as national polling such as Gallup’s, which found public support for marijuana legalization hitting a record high of 44 percent in October — would continue to lead the way on easing prohibition.

As for the gap Miron saw between libertarian and liberal drug-reform backers, it may be narrowing. Houston, of the MPP, said he was invited to a Republican rebranding session earlier this year by lawmakers eager to “appeal to the Ron Paul wing of the party.”

“In addition to stockpiling coins and guns in their basements, the tea party people also grow pot,” he added.

Regardless of whether the drug reform movement can build a bigger tent, its efforts under Obama are sure to be colored by the recession. The reversal of the needle-exchange funding ban, for example, could have less impact in lean budgetary times.

“All health funding goes by the wayside in this kind of climate” observed Allan Clear, the executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, a longtime advocate for needle exchange. “Social services do [as well].”

For pro-legalization groups, however, state fiscal crises can strengthen their case for cutting incarceration and enforcement costs by loosening limits on marijuana.

Miron’s most recent research estimates that ending pot prohibition would save states and the federal government $13.7 billion annually, with another $6.3 billion in potential profit per year if use were taxed at rates comparable to alcohol and tobacco. If other drugs were added to the picture, the financial benefits would more than triple.

Of course, even hopeful drug reformers see federal action on decriminalization as a prospect for the very distant future. They are looking for Obama “drug czar” Gil Kerlikowske, whose first national strategy document is due next month, to follow up on his December diagnosis that “calling this a war does not work.”

Perhaps the strongest signal of movement from the White House is in its rhetoric, which emphasizes the failure of mandatory sentencing and the value of treatment.

“We’ve done such a fine job of demonizing drugs and drug use that it’s hard to have a rational conversation about it,” Clear said. “That’s one of the things we can get from this administration — a more rational response and conversation.”