Commentary by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
WASHINGTON - President Obama’s comment in a recent YouTube Town Hall that “drug legalization is a legitimate topic for debate” was what drug reform advocates have long wanted to hear.
His blunt remark, in response to a question from a former law enforcement officer, was in stark contrast to the much-criticized response he gave in an interview two years ago. That time, when asked whether he thought legalizing marijuana would help the economy, Obama treated the question as a joke, flatly dismissing any such notion and quickly moving on.
Since then, the Obama administration has continued to heavily favor prosecution and incarceration of drug offenders over treatment and prevention programs, even as it tries to blur its position. Attorney General Eric Holder has repeatedly warned that the federal government will aggressively target drug offenders, regardless of whether state lawmakers or voters try to soften drug laws or even legalize marijuana. Last May, White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske touted the importance of treating drug use as a public health rather than a criminal problem; but he gave no indication that a major shift in the administration’s drug spending priorities was in the offing, despite a small increase in funding for treatment and prevention programs.
A few months later, Kevin Sabet, special adviser for policy at the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, reaffirmed that the administration would not prosecute people who legitimately used medical marijuana in the states where it was legal. Sabet warned, though, that the Justice Department would vigorously prosecute anyone who abused medical marijuana laws as a pretense to effectively legalize pot and expressed concern that medical marijuana could become a front for drug traffickers.
Meanwhile, the drug war has taken some strange turns. More state legislators, including a fair number of Republicans, have branded current drug enforcement policies as costly failures. Groups like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition have called for repeal of some drug laws, contending that the focus on prosecution and imprisonment has wreaked havoc on state budgets, torn apart families and communities, and endangered the lives of law enforcement officers conducting drug raids and sweeps.
The shift in legislative and political opinion was in evidence last year when Congress, at President Obama’s urging, reduced the sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine. Meanwhile, Obama signed a measure repealing a two-decade-old ban on the use of federal money for needle-exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. In California, voters came closer than ever to legalizing marijuana, while lame-duck Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill reducing possession of small amounts of pot from a misdemeanor to an infraction punishable by a $100 fine.
Obama’s thoughtful response to the drug legalization question on YouTube was a return to his position during the 2008 presidential primaries. Back then, he was the only top presidential contender who supported eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana, including legalizing medical pot. Although his stance received relatively little media attention, it was the first hint that if elected he might be willing to rethink how the drug war was being waged. His reiteration of that view on YouTube was tacit acknowledgement that the nation’s policy has been a colossal failure.
The numbers tell why. Taxpayers shell out nearly $70 billion annually on corrections and incarceration. In 2010, there were more than 2 million Americans warehoused in state and federal prisons, 1 in 4 of them for drug offenses. When those inmates are lreased back to their communities, studies show that they earn roughly 40 percent less than they did before being jailed. In other words, drug incarceration doesn’t just strain the federal and state budgets at a time when governments are preaching austerity, it has also drained the economy.
President Obama will unveil his budget for the coming year on February13. Drug reformers will be paying close attention. If the president is serious about engaging in the “legitimate debate” he spoke of, the proof will be there, in reduced spending for prosecution and increased funds for prevention and treatment. Only then will the drug war truly be won.