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Obama's New Drug Policy Strategy Is Too Little, Too Late

Continuing to hype the evils of marijuana legalization in the face of all available evidence coming out of Colorado and Washington is silly.

The president is still better at clutching babies than setting drug policy. Photo via Flickr user Charles McCain

It's been a busy week for drug policy reformers in America. On Monday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo set in motion what is apparently going to be a painfully slow process of catching the Empire State up with rest of this weed-loving country, signing into law an incredibly restrictive medical marijuana program that will ban patients from actually smoking the herb. On Tuesday, Washington state's recreational pot regime, passed by ballot referendum in 2012, finally took effect, with the first sales apparently producing bales of cash. Most of that money, as in Colorado, will go toward essential services like health care and education. Coupled with the fact that Washington, DC, is set to (at least) decriminalize marijuana in the near future, and one might argue that it's an exciting time to be an American who wants their government to do intelligent—or at least not completely incoherent—things when it comes to drugs.


Enter Barack Obama. On Wednesday, the president's drug czar released the 2014 edition of US national drug control strategy, a 102-page document that leads off with a paean from the Man himself touting an "evidence-based plan for real drug policy reform, spanning the spectrum of effective prevention, early intervention, treatment, recovery support, criminal justice, law enforcement, and international cooperation." But this latest agenda, while laudable for moving away from a "war on drugs" mentality and highlighting opiate addiction, goes out of its way to defend pot prohibition. The administration insists we ought to be giving it credit for doing a bit of tinkering at the margins of a catastrophic, decades-old policy failure, but even this updated strategy is riddled with glaring flaws. Perhaps most ominously, the document could serve to expand what has been something of a regional moral panic over a surge in heroin use in the Northeast—especially in states like Vermont.

The strategy also embraces the use of drug courts—the phrase appears 26 times in the document, including a plug for actor Matthew Perry's heroism in popularizing this allegedly wonderful alternative to America's traditional legal system. In fact, drug courts could be making the United States act more punitively toward addicts and have failed to reduce the influx of young minorities into the penal system. Rather than reducing harm, the criminal justice apparatus has been expanded, and the studies the government cites showing their effectiveness are dubious at best given the systematic selection bias present in these programs.


Of course, it's not like anyone was expecting the White House to come out with a plan to suddenly legalize ganja across the land. US drug policy seemed to go backward during Obama's first term, at least when it came to the federal goverment's enforcement of marijuana laws. The DEA made more raids than ever, especially in states with versions of legalization or decriminalization on the books. The war on weed has eased somewhat since the president's re-election, suggesting that either this enforcement strategy was caused by some cynical tough-on-crime political calculations, or perhaps that Attorney General Eric Holder has had a massive change of heart since the 2012 election.

To his credit, Obama has pushed through some worthy initiatives like a reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, which has traditionally resulted in blacks facing far harsher prison sentences than whites (who tend to buy the stuff you can snort). Instead of a 100-to-1 disparity in the prison terms attached to the two drugs, it's now 17-to-1. Cool. Likewise, Holder has started to rein in mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which destroy too many young peoples' lives. And the just-released strategy features an effort to make heroin overdose drugs like Naloxone more widely available, which is a pretty obviously good thing. What's more, Colorado and Washington have largely been free from federal harassment, with one or two exceptions. All of those advances should be acknowledged, but even so, these are hardly bold strides forward.


And not to harp on the marijuana component of this, but Obama's plan was immediately preceded by some amazing journalism from muckraker (and VICE contributor Lee Fang), who reported on how the corporations like Purdue Pharma that manufacture prescription opiates like OxyContin funnel cash toward propping up pot prohibition. Given that marijuana is the most commonly used illegal substance in the country, the fresh strategy already seems a bit stale, warning as it does about the dangers of an opiate epidemic without a hint of self-awareness. One would think the spectacular conflict of interest coursing throughout the federal government's partners in pot criminalization, such as the industry-funded Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), would trouble the White House.

The strategy also shows its age when expressing concern that young people are insufficiently scared of pot, thanks in part to the example set by those rogue states out west.

"There's been an intense effort since the early 70s at least but intensively since 1979 to keep minors terrified about cannabis," explains Mark Kleiman, a UCLA professor who is advising Washington state officials on their legalization program.

As always, there are legitimate concerns to be had about pot use. Like whether young people might inhibit their development by messing around with the drug when they're in their tweens, and whether overpowering edibles in Colorado will continue to cause marijuana newbies like Maureen Dowd to lose their shit. But the facts are encouraging.

"What's strange about the last decade is we've seen a boost in cannabis use but not among minors," Kleiman says.

Political elites are still figuring out how to reconcile what their fellow insiders are telling them to believe about drug policy and what their constituents actually want. That's to be expected. But inasmuch as Obama is set to enjoy a few decades of fabulous privilege upon retirement, one would think an issue as life-or-death as heroin use—and the almost-as-damaging systematic enforcement of pot prohibition—would merit a bit more focus right now. Instead, the president copped to his failure by deferring to interim drug czar Michael Botticelli, who unveiled the annual strategy on his own in Virginia. Ostensibly this was because Botticelli is himself a recovering addict, and the guy should be applauded for admitting that "we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem." Talking about drugs remains impossible for Obama himself, however, as we were reminded when he laughed off some bro in Colorado who asked him to smoke pot this week. The president has a storied history of laughing away legalization types, in fact, despite a young adulthood defined in large part by extensive recreational drug use.

So President Obama remains rather cynically satisfied with a status quo that preys on the vulnerable. Meanwhile, elected officials making policy at a local level are moving ahead with at least somewhat less prejudice. No wonder this latest drug control strategy already seems behind the times.

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