The Obama Administration and the War on Drugs

“The war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws. We need to rethink how we’re operating the drug war.” – Then-Senate-Candidate Barack Obama, January 2004

“I don’t mind a debate around issues like decriminalization . . . I personally don’t agree that’s a solution to the problem.” – President Obama, April 2012

When President Obama was elected in 2008, many people believed our country was headed in a new direction. Candidate Obama campaigned on (besides economic issues) ending the Iraq War, closing Guantanamo Bay, immigration reform, repealing the PATRIOT Act, and taking a more sensible approach to drug policy. He said it “makes no sense” to raid patients who use marijuana for medical use. He also said that the federal government wouldn’t waste resources on enforcing federal laws against individuals compliant with state marijuana laws. As Jacob Sullum from Reason Magazine wrote in its October 2011 issue:

“The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law,” Holder declared during a March 2009 session with reporters in Washington. “Given the limited resources that we have,” he said during a visit to Albuquerque three months later, the Justice Department would focus on “large traffickers,” not “organizations that are [distributing marijuana] in a way that is consistent with state law.”

Almost four years later, we are still at 8%+ unemployment, gas is hovering around $3.90 a gallon, the War is ending on the timetable established by the Bush administration, the PATRIOT Act was extended, Guantanamo Bay is still open, the US deported more undocumented workers in 2011 than ever before, and the drug war is humming along quite nicely. As an example, the DEA recently raided Oaksterdam Universitythe so-called “Princeton of Pot” as part of an on-going criminal investigation. Richard Lee, the Oaksterdam’s founder, believes it may have something to do with the fact that it wasn’t compliant with the IRS’s decision to disallow medical marijuana dispensaries from deducting business expenses. Medical marijuana raids have been more frequent under Obama than under Bush, when there were about 200 over eight years.

With all of the talk about the Administration’s focus on treatment and prevention, as opposed to enforcement, the funding levels for the DEA have largely remained unchanged since Bill Clinton was in office: roughly 40 percent for programs aimed at curbing demand and treating addicts and 60 percent for enforcing anti-drug laws. 

And this comes at a time when foreign leaders are becoming more outspoken about the misguided drug war, especially those leaders in Central and South America who have been hit hardest by cartel violence. At the Summit of the Americas, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said:

“In spite of all the efforts, the illicit drug business is still buoyant, drug addiction in all countries is a serious public health issue, and drug trafficking is still the main provider of funding for violence and terrorism . . . [an] in-depth discussion around this topic is needed, without any biases or dogmas, taking into consideration the different scenarios and possible alternatives to more effectively face this challenge.”

In the end, the past four years of the Obama Administration’s drug policy has been a disappointment to many, especially considering the President’s statements prior to coming into office. There are those who fear an Obama second term, worried that he will suddenly unveil his vastly liberal agenda in an attempt to transform American society, despite all evidence to the contrary. When it comes to the drug war, though, that may be our only shot.

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