America’s spectacularly ineffective domestic drug policies have not succeeded in any of their aims, except perhaps keeping large numbers of law enforcement personnel employed. They do not help addicts, who would almost certainly be better off treated as sick than criminal. They haven’t reduced the strong linkages between drugs and organized crime. Further, they have helped to create and perpetuate some of the worst racial divides in America: most notably, by imprisoning large numbers of black men for crimes that those with better lawyers and backgrounds would walk away from with fines or community service. A transition towards harm reduction policies, coupled with judicial and police reform, seems to have promise for mitigating both the harmful effects of drugs themselves and those of past drug policies.
Given his background – working as a community organizer in Chicago, as well as his personal experience with drugs – it would be surprising if Obama turned out to be another drug warrior, pushing for abstinence and brandishing harsh jail sentences. At the same time, the drug issue is clearly not one that he can afford to focus his attention upon. It will be very interesting to see whether drug policy is an area where Obama will be able to inject a little sense, or whether urgent demands elsewhere will leave it languishing in the lamentable state it acquired during the Bush years.