Obama and the ‘war on drugs’

Beer glass

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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

28 thoughts on “Obama and the ‘war on drugs’”

  1. I would like to think that he’ll contribute towards reducing America’s astonishingly vast penal population & incarceration rate, but it might be too risky a proposition politically. So saying, some of the strongest cases for penal reform can be made re. drug policy, which might receive the backing of the medical & scientific community as well as those concerned about racial equality (the latter could well be interpreted negatively as a ‘race card’ move).
    One should bear in mind that the vast majority of US prisoners are held by states & thus outside his jurisdiction, but a large proportion of the federal prisoners are there for drug offences so changing drug policy would still make a difference. It would also have the notable benefit of freeing up money to spend on all these job-creating infrastructure projects.

  2. Sarah,

    What do you think Obama could most usefully do that would (a) be within his jurisdiction and (b) not be overly costly, in political terms?

    One major intended theme of this administration is restoring the role of science in policy-making. Alongside climate change and stem cell research, drug policy is somewhere that approach could be applied.

  3. He could appoint a panel of experts on drug sentencing & then propose federal legislation based on their advice. Would it be politically risky? Yes, he’d be trying to build Congress & Senate support for something that will sound bad to many voters & will conflict with the previously stated positions of a great many of his potential supporters. But there is already momentum for change on some aspects of drug law (e.g. the disparity in sentencing between powdered cocaine and crack) which he could harness. This would also have the useful effect of setting a precedent for the states to follow (and a lot are so keen to save cash that they’ll take a risk on the issue).
    Perhaps the biggest change would be to end racial profiling – or at least to force all law enforcement officials to keep records of the race, age, gender etc for everyone they stop and search AND require them to explain & justify any racial disparity in those figures. This would in many ways be more useful than changing sentencing policy, though it wouldn’t have the short-term financial benefit.

    The Sentencing Project (big think tank) suggests that he’s been thinking these issues over for some time & laid out several priorities:
    “Among the top civil rights priorities will be the complete elimination of crack cocaine sentencing disparities. Additional agenda items include ending racial profiling, reducing recidivism by providing reentry support, and expanding the use of drug courts. The site states: “Obama and Biden will give first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior.” http://sentencingproject.org/NewsDetails.aspx?NewsID=711

  4. I wonder if he could usefully alter US drug policy towards Mexico. The current arrangement, in which Mexico has become the primary shipment corridor from Latin America to the US and in which drug gangs are a growing threat to the government itself, is certainly deeply worrisome.

    In the end, perhaps only the legalization and state control of drug sales is sufficient to overcome the corruption and organized crime that accompany it as a criminal activity.

  5. Less severe sentencing and the provision of treatment for drug addicts would both contribute towards lowering drug costs, thus helping re. organized crime because selling drugs would become less profitable. Providing prescription drugs for those addicts who have failed to get clean (which will be a lot of them, even with good treatment) would help further. Ultimately, demand side solutions are the most likely to prove effective, but they would be difficult to implement in a country without universal healthcare.

  6. The only solution is the market – make the market for illegal drugs open, and the black market will be priced out of existence. Organized crime will disappear without its primary revenue stream.

    The social ills caused by those drugs, if they are increased by the legalization, are a small price to pay for the rule of law. A black market economy is worse than the crimes of assault or murder it perpetrates – it is an essentially destabilizing force to society. If it were not so archane, I would advocate for public torture and execution of black marketeers, although this would only be justified in cases where there really was a justified reason in keeping the product off the open market. So, for example, people selling fake toothpaste – we should have their heads on pikes.

  7. While I too celebrate this action, I’ll be interested to see how the US approaches dealing with some of the associated problems (NY Times article may require login to NYT).

  8. The Drug War’s Collateral Damage
    Drug prohibition militarizes our police, enriches our enemies, undermines our laws, and condemns our sick to suffering.

    Radley Balko | January 23, 2009

    “In a 1986 speech designed to drum up public support for yet another round of War on Drugs legislation, President Ronald Reagan officially designated illicit drugs a threat to America’s national security. After declaring that, “We’re running up a battle flag,” Reagan then compared America’s determination in the war on drugs to that of the French troops at the World War I Battle of Verdun. As the journalist Dan Baum notes while explaining Reagan’s speech in his book Smoke and Mirrors, Verdun was a protracted, bloody, brutal battle of attrition. A quarter million troops lost their lives and another 700,000 were wounded in the months-long battle for a small strip of land that offered little practical advantage to either army. In fact, in much of Europe, Verdun has come to symbolize the futility of war, and the way governments are willing to write off the mass loss of human life as mere collateral damage in the pursuit of some seemingly noble but ultimately shallow and elusive aim.

    Looking back, Reagan’s analogy was quite a bit more appropriate than he probably intended.”

  9. Deadly Symbiosis
    Rethinking race and imprisonment in twenty-first-century America.
    Loïc Wacquant

    “The ratio of black to white imprisonment rates has steadily grown over the past two decades, climbing from about five to one to eight and a half to one. This rising “racial disproportionality” can be traced directly to the War on Drugs launched by Ronald Reagan and expanded under George Bush, Sr. and Bill Clinton. In ten states, African Americans are imprisoned at more than ten times the rate of European Americans. And in the District of Columbia, blacks were thirty-five times more likely than whites to be put behind bars in 1994.”

  10. Seattle Police Chief May Be Next Drug Czar

    Published: February 12, 2009

    WASHINGTON — President Obama has chosen R. Gil Kerlikowske, the chief of police in Seattle, as his drug czar, an administration official said Thursday.

    If confirmed by the Senate, Chief Kerlikowske, 59, would come to the Office of National Drug Control Policy after more than eight years as the chief law enforcement official in a city known for its progressive drug laws. The appointment was first reported Tuesday on the Web sites of Seattle newspapers.

    Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which wants drug laws eased, said Mr. Kerlikowske did not voice support for Seattle’s needle exchange or medical use of marijuana policies, but did not actively oppose them, either.

    “We’d have preferred more of a public health type,” Mr. Nadelmann said. “But he’s likely to be the best drug czar we’ve seen. Not that that’s saying much.”

  11. Reform School
    Five myths about prison growth dispelled.
    By John Pfaff
    Posted Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009, at 3:08 PM ET

    The United States has a prison population like nowhere else. With one out of every 100 adults behind bars, our incarceration rate is the highest in the entire world. Our inmates—1.5 million in prison, with another 800,000 in jail—comprise one-third of the world’s total. This is a surprisingly recent development. After barely budging for 50 years, our incarceration rate increased sevenfold (to 738 per 100,000 people) between 1978 and 2008.

    The system is now at its breaking point. Federal judges in California just issued a tentative order demanding that the state release nearly 60,000 inmates over the next three years to alleviate intolerable overcrowding.

    Low-level drug offenders drive prison population growth. It is popular, perhaps almost mandatory, to blame the boom on the War on Drugs. But it is just not true. Only 20 percent of inmates in prisons (as opposed to jails) are locked up for drug offenses, compared with 50 percent for violent crimes and 20 percent for property offenses; most of the drug offenders are in prison for distribution, not possession.

  12. It should be noted that some people think the John Pfaff article linked above is deeply misleading.

    Feel free to discuss it here, or on the discussion page within slate.com.

    If someone can produce compelling evidence that the John Pfaff piece contains errors, I very much encourage them to contact the Slate editorial staff. Convincing them to retract or amend the piece would have a far greater effect than any comment posted here or on their discussion forum.

  13. U.S. to yield marijuana jurisdiction to states

    Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
    Friday, February 27, 2009

    San Francisco — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is sending strong signals that President Obama – who as a candidate said states should be allowed to make their own rules on medical marijuana – will end raids on pot dispensaries in California.

    Asked at a Washington news conference Wednesday about Drug Enforcement Administration raids in California since Obama took office last month, Holder said the administration has changed its policy.

  14. This revolting trade in human lives is an incentive to lock people up

    The inmate population has soared since Britain started running prisons for profit. Little wonder lobbyists want Titan jails

    George Monbiot
    The Guardian, Tuesday 3 March 2009

    It’s a staggering case; more staggering still that it has scarcely been mentioned on this side of the ocean. Last week two judges in Pennsylvania were convicted of jailing some 2,000 children in exchange for bribes from private prison companies.

    Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan sent children to jail for offences so trivial that some of them weren’t even crimes. A 15-year-old called Hillary Transue got three months for creating a spoof web page ridiculing her school’s assistant principal. Ciavarella sent Shane Bly, then 13, to boot camp for trespassing in a vacant building. He gave a 14-year-old, Jamie Quinn, 11 months in prison for slapping a friend during an argument, after the friend slapped her. The judges were paid $2.6m by companies belonging to the Mid-Atlantic Youth Services Corp for helping to fill its jails. This is what happens when public services are run for profit.

  15. Legalizing Drugs: The Least Bad Answer

    By Dan Gillmor on guestblog

    The Obama administration has named the latest of America’s “drug czars” — the person who heads the War on (Some) Drugs, a futile, expensive and supremely hypocritical campaign that has caused vastly more damage, in America and around the globe, than the problems it aims to fix. No one denies that drug misuse and addiction are often horrific to individuals and their families; what almost no one wants to ask, however, is whether legalization (or at least decriminalization) would have cumulatively less-bad effects. Perhaps the Warriors against (some) drugs — almost all of whom, no doubt, are users of other drugs — know that the weight of the evidence would not support their side.

  16. Failed states and failed policies
    How to stop the drug wars

    Mar 5th 2009
    From The Economist print edition
    Prohibition has failed; legalisation is the least bad solution

    “This is not for want of effort. The United States alone spends some $40 billion each year on trying to eliminate the supply of drugs. It arrests 1.5m of its citizens each year for drug offences, locking up half a million of them; tougher drug laws are the main reason why one in five black American men spend some time behind bars. In the developing world blood is being shed at an astonishing rate. In Mexico more than 800 policemen and soldiers have been killed since December 2006 (and the annual overall death toll is running at over 6,000). This week yet another leader of a troubled drug-ridden country—Guinea Bissau—was assassinated.

    Indeed, far from reducing crime, prohibition has fostered gangsterism on a scale that the world has never seen before. According to the UN’s perhaps inflated estimate, the illegal drug industry is worth some $320 billion a year. In the West it makes criminals of otherwise law-abiding citizens (the current American president could easily have ended up in prison for his youthful experiments with “blow”). It also makes drugs more dangerous: addicts buy heavily adulterated cocaine and heroin; many use dirty needles to inject themselves, spreading HIV; the wretches who succumb to “crack” or “meth” are outside the law, with only their pushers to “treat” them. But it is countries in the emerging world that pay most of the price. Even a relatively developed democracy such as Mexico now finds itself in a life-or-death struggle against gangsters. American officials, including a former drug tsar, have publicly worried about having a “narco state” as their neighbour.”

  17. Kerlikowske opposes ‘war on drugs’ idea

    WASHINGTON, May 14 (UPI) — Gil Kerlikowske, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, says the United States should not see itself as fighting a “war on drugs.”

    The newly confirmed drug control official questioned the use of the popular “war” term, saying such an idea is actually standing in the way of positive movement regarding the country’s drug problems, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

    “Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs’ or a ‘war on a product,’ people see a war as a war on them,” Kerlikowske said Wednesday. “We’re not at war with people in this country.”


    And also, after an unglamorous (but generally satisfying) day of solid police work, I have been known to reflect that Prison is not about deterrence or reform, it is about containment.

    If it was about deterrence, prison life would be tougher and nastier and harder. It isn’t.

    If it was about reform, that aspect of the work in prisons would be much better funded and professional. It is not.

    Reform attempts are probably better left to non-custodial interventions . All the stats I can find on the web say that they are about as effective as prison, maybe a few points better. They are at least lots, lots cheaper.

    Prison for volume property crime and persistent lower level violent offenders is about containment. It’s society’s way of saying “You’ve had your chances, you’ve blown your chances, time to give the rest of us a rest from you”. Prisons are built, equipped and financed for basic containment because that is what they are meant to do. Form fits function.

    Unless you want to recreate AbuGhraib on a commercial basis or return to the old days of The Clink or The Bastille, its a choice of containment or reform / rehabilitation. I think at the moment, we are doing default containment because

    a) Nobody has found the magic key to reliable rehabilitation yet. There may not in fact be one. If this is the case then rats to rehabilitation, go for containment. I cannot help thinking that after 100 yrs + of Social Science and Penology, if there was a way, we would know it and be using it by now. Still, never say never.

    b) Even if it is out there, no-one’s putting enough money into the system to make it work.

  19. Netherlands runs out of criminals, has to shut prisons

    The Netherlands (where cannabis is legal) has so few criminals that it is now faced with the choice of shutting down its prisons and laying off the staff, or importing criminals from other countries like Belgium on a contract basis:

    During the 1990s the Netherlands faced a shortage of prison cells, but a decline in crime has since led to overcapacity in the prison system. The country now has capacity for 14,000 prisoners but only 12,000 detainees.

    Deputy justice minister Nebahat Albayrak announced on Tuesday that eight prisons will be closed, resulting in the loss of 1,200 jobs. Natural redundancy and other measures should prevent any forced lay-offs, the minister said.

  20. U.S. won’t go after medical marijuana in states where legal
    Mon Oct 19, 2009 12:29pm EDT

    By James Vicini

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a policy shift, the Obama administration told federal prosecutors not to go after patients who use medical marijuana or dispensaries in states where it has been legalized, as long as they comply with state and federal laws.

    A Justice Department official said the formal guidelines were sent on Monday in a policy change reflecting President Barack Obama’s views. The Bush administration had said it could enforce the federal law against marijuana and that it trumped state laws.

    As a candidate during his presidential bid last year, Obama said that he intended to halt raids of medical marijuana facilities operating legally under state laws.

    After Obama took office in January, a Drug Enforcement Administration raid on a medical marijuana dispensary in Lake Tahoe, California, raised questions about whether he would follow that pledge.

  21. Gateway Drug Policy
    Will Obama’s new medical marijuana directive actually change anything?
    By Christopher Beam
    Posted Monday, Oct. 19, 2009, at 7:20 PM ET

    Marijuana The Justice Department’s announcement that the feds will no longer crack down on medical marijuana sellers who follow state laws will surely cheer the liberal/libertarian axis that wants the government to take a more relaxed stance on drug laws. It should also please conservatives who champion states’ rights as the highest political ideal. But unlike most policies with such broad support, it might actually accomplish something.

    The new memo, written by Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, urges district attorneys to defer to local marijuana laws rather than federal law, which prohibits all consumption and sales of the drug. The new policy is remarkably uncontroversial. Two-thirds of Americans think marijuana should be legal for medicinal purposes. Obama promised during his campaign to reduce crackdowns on dispensaries; opposition was minimal. Attorney General Eric Holder said in March that the crackdowns would stop and met with little objection. Monday’s memo simply made it official. “This is a very safe policy,” says Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project. “There’s no constituency for going after sick people.”

  22. The End of Prohibition
    Why gay marriage, getting high, and going to Cuba will soon be legal.
    By Jacob Weisberg
    Posted Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009, at 7:06 AM ET

    “I think this would be a good time for a beer,” Franklin D. Roosevelt said upon signing a bill that made 3.2-percent lager legal again, some months ahead of the full repeal of Prohibition. I hope Barack Obama will come up with some comparably witty remarks as he presides over the dismantling of our contemporary forms of prohibition—laws that prevent gay marriage, restrict cannabis as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, and ban travel to Cuba. “You may now kiss the groom,” perhaps, or—a version of the comment he once made about smoking pot—”I inhaled—that was the point.”

    Prohibition now is different from Prohibition then. When the 18th Amendment went into effect in 1920, it was a radical social experiment challenging a custom as old as civilization. Its predictable failure—the gross insult to individual rights, the impossibility of enforcement, the spawning of organized crime—came to an end when Utah, of all places, became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment in 1933. Today prohibition is a byword for futile attempts to legislate morality and remake human nature.

    Our forms of prohibition are more sins of omission than commission. Rather than trying to take away longstanding rights, they’re instances of conservative laws failing to keep pace with a liberalizing society. But like Prohibition in the ’20s, these restrictions have become indefensible as well as impractical, and as a result are fading fast. Within 10 years, it seems a reasonable guess that Americans will travel freely to Cuba, that all states will recognize gay unions, and that few will retain criminal penalties for marijuana use by individuals. Whether or not Democrats retain control of Congress, whether or not Obama is re-elected, and whether they happen sooner or later than expected, these reforms are inevitable—not because politics has changed but because society has.

  23. Drugs
    Virtually legal

    Nov 12th 2009
    From The Economist print edition
    In many countries, full jails, stretched budgets and a general weariness with the war on drugs have made prohibition harder to enforce

    THE Green Relief “natural health clinic” in a bohemian part of San Francisco doesn’t sound like an ordinary doctor’s surgery. For those who wonder about the sort of relief provided, its logo—a cannabis leaf—is a clue. Inside, in under an hour and for $99, patients can get a doctor’s letter allowing them to smoke marijuana in California with no fear of prosecution. In a state that pioneered bans on smoking tobacco, smoking cannabis is now easier than almost anywhere in the world.

    California, with its network of pot-friendly physicians, offers the most visible evidence of a tentative worldwide shift towards a more liberal policy on drugs. Although most countries remain bound by a trio of United Nations conventions that prohibit the sale and possession of narcotics, laws are increasingly being bent or ignored. That is true even in the United States, where the Obama administration has announced that registered cannabis dispensaries will no longer be raided by federal authorities.

    From heroin “shooting galleries” in Vancouver to Mexico’s decriminalisation of personal possession of drugs, the Americas are suddenly looking more permissive. Meanwhile in Europe, where drugs policy is generally less stringent, seven countries have decriminalised drug possession, and the rest are increasingly ignoring their supposedly harsh regimes. Is the “war on drugs” becoming a fiction?

    Reformers are in a bold mood. Earlier this year a report by ex-presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico called for alternatives to prohibition. On November 12th a British think-tank, Transform, launched a report* setting out ideas on how drugs could be legally regulated. For every substance from cannabis to crack, it suggests a form of regulation, via doctors’ prescriptions, pharmacy sales or consumption on licensed premises.

  24. America’s drug laws

    A fine too far
    State stamp laws for drugs make a mockery of the tax code
    Feb 18th 2010 | ATLANTA | From The Economist print edition

    LOCKED in a vault within the North Carolina Department of Revenue is a lickable bit of Kafka: a government-issued stamp that is expected to remain unpurchased, but which users of illegal goods must, by law, affix to substances they are not allowed to possess.

    North Carolina is one of about 20 states that tax illegal drugs. The cost varies by state and weight, as does the stamps’ appearance (Nebraska’s, with a skull surmounting a syringe and joint, looks like Grateful Dead tribute art). Penalties for non-payment also vary, from being classed as a misdemeanour in Georgia to 200% of the tax plus $10,000 or five years in prison in Louisiana.

    Few, if any, drug users actually buy the stamps. Most of those sold in Kansas, for instance, go to collectors. And according to a Mobile newspaper, the director of investigations for Alabama’s revenue department said the state never expected actually to sell stamps to drug users. Instead, the tax exists to further punish those arrested for possession by making them liable to penalties for tax evasion if their drugs are stampless, as they almost invariably are. And those penalties can be lucrative: over the past decade Kansas has collected $10.3m.

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