Obama was frank about his own drug use, so why isn't he more honest about what a disaster war on drugs has been?
One of the many things that made Barack Obama such a refreshing candidate was his frank and unapologetic admission of drug use. True, Anderson Cooper extracted curt "yeses" from some 2004 Democratic candidates when he asked them point-blank if they had ever smoked pot. But Obama has written openly and without prompting about his experiences, not only with marijuana, but cocaine, a "hard" drug. On the campaign trail he even joked about inhaling deeply -- "that was the point," he said more than once. Unlike George W. Bush, Obama didn't hide behind evasive murmurs about "irresponsible behavior," or turn his drug experiences into a setup for some maudlin born-again conversion story.
As recounted in his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama was a normal American kid. Which is to say he used drugs, had fun and survived. The book doesn't romanticize the president-elect's days of smoking pot and snorting "a little blow when [he] could afford it," but it's easy to take what details he provides and imagine him with his basketball buddies on some Oahu beach blazing bowls of Maui Wowie, alternately laughing until his guts hurt and sitting in quiet wonder before a magnificent pink-and-yellow Pacific sunset. Obama has even written about his pursuit of heroin's moon-shot high. As a teenager, he went so far as to ask a junkie friend for an assisted first hit, but recoiled when presented in a deli freezer with the surgical tools of the mainliner's trade: rubber tubing and second-hand syringe.
Partly because Obama was so reasonable and matter-of-fact about his own All-American experiences getting high, drug-policy reformers were among those most excited by his candidacy. If any aspect of America needs change, it is the country's prohibitionist and punitive approach to drugs and drug use. Obama, it seemed, was the right politician to take an executive hammer to the cracked marble pillars of America's disastrous war on drugs. Throughout the primaries and general election, Obama gently encouraged these hopes by advocating commonsense drug-policy reforms. He criticized federal paramilitary raids on state-sanctioned greenhouses and called for ending racist discrepancies in cocaine sentencing laws. (As a little-mentioned footnote to the first of these positions, Obama's mother died from cancer five years before the Hawaii legislature legalized medical marijuana.)
Nobody expected Obama to tap Tommy Chong to run the Office of National Drug Control Policy. But maybe, just maybe, Obama would have the political courage to publicly acknowledge what an emerging majority of Americans now grasps: that the war on drugs is a failure, that it is unjust, and that it is an epic waste of law-enforcement time and resources.
Still a month before inauguration, the hopes of drug-policy-reform advocates have had their wings clipped several times, beginning with the announcement of the Democratic ticket.
"The pick of Joe Biden was my first sign of digestive tumult," says Keith Stroup, founder and legal advisor of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "Rather than oppose the Reagan-inspired War on Some Drugs, Biden became an enthusiastic supporter and legislative booster. He was at the center of creating the ONDCP [in 1988], mandatory minimum sentencing, civil forfeiture laws, the Rave Act, funding for DARE in public schools and the ad campaigns for the Partnership for a Drug Free America."
NORML board member Dominic Holden says: "Biden is the drug war embodied."
The selection of the emblematic Democratic drug warrior of the 1980s was followed by the selection of his 1990s counterpart, Rahm Emanuel. As President Bill Clinton's liaison with the ONDCP, the incoming chief of staff advised on and defended that administration's tough-on-crime punitive approach to drugs and its cowardly opposition to medical-marijuana initiatives and needle-exchange programs. While Clinton has since expressed regret over some of these positions, the tightly wound Emanuel has not.
Obama's pick for attorney general, meanwhile, has a mixed record on drug policy reform that will hopefully be clarified during the expected Senate dogfight over his nomination. But the record is not encouraging. As D.C. attorney general in the 1990s, Eric Holder supported mandatory sentences of 18 months to six years for selling a range of drugs that included marijuana. He is also on record supporting the "broken windows" theory of neighborhood policing most closely associated with Mayor Rudy Giuliani's NYPD and the conservative Manhattan Institute. Holder's iron-fist drug politics find a public health counterpart in the confused mind of Obama's Transition Team point man on the ONDCP, Don Vereen, who as recently as November explained his opposition to medical marijuana by saying, "[It] sends the wrong message to children."
Which takes us to the drug czar throne. Here the rumors are worse than most would have DARE'd imagine. The Obama transition team has done nothing to dispel talk that Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., is a leading candidate to run ONDCP or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In either position, Ramstad's nomination would make a joke of Obama's pledge that his policy decisions will be made "based on facts," not ideology and caveman politics. Earlier this month, hundreds of leading substance-abuse health professionals signed a letter to Obama expressing concern over Ramstad's opposition to evidence-based HIV/AIDS-reduction practices such as methadone and needle-exchange programs, as well as his support for arresting medical marijuana patients and failure to co-sponsor any of the three bills put forward by the last Congress to eliminate the cocaine-sentencing disparity. But it gets worse. As Maia Szalavitz first reported on The Huffington Post, Ramstad funneled almost a quarter of a million dollars in federal money to an abusive church-run addiction program that sees drug addiction not as a health issue requiring medication and counseling, but as a "sin" that needs cleansing through the acceptance of Jesus Christ as lord and savior. Ramstad is such a Bush-league freak show that concern over his possible nomination has spilled beyond the small world of drug-policy-reform professionals. Last week, the Boston Globe editorialized strongly against his candidacy.
Of course, it's possible that the views of people like Holder, Emanuel, Biden and Ramstad are no longer what they were. But reformers are concerned that there's no way of knowing. "Because they haven't spoken on these issues in so long, we have to go back to what they said in the '90s," says Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML. "We hope they have evolved, or that at least Obama doesn't listen to them if they haven't. After all, the president sets the policy."
Regardless of where Obama's appointees stand and how much, if any, political capital he is willing to spend on drug-policy reform, the need to turn his campaign slogan into reality has never been greater. Last week, the Justice Department released numbers showing that 1 in every 100 Americans is now in prison, and 1 in every 31 is either behind bars, on parole or on probation. For this grotesquerie we can thank the war on drugs. More than half of federal prisoners (95,000 people) are behind bars for drug-law violations -- a record. Nationally, around half a million people are in prison on nonviolent drug charges. The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that this is a tenfold increase since 1980, totaling more than the entire prison population of Western Europe.
Reform advocates are realistic about the possibilities for progress in the coming years. Everyone agrees that a radical overhaul of U.S. drug laws, including ending the prohibition of marijuana, remains years if not decades away. But the major groups have clear goals for the first administration and are guardedly optimistic about meeting them.
The Drug Policy Alliance, the nation's largest drug-policy-reform advocacy group, seeks the repeal of the federal syringe-exchange-program ban and an end to racist federal cocaine sentencing laws, which continue to punish low-level crack offenders 100 times more severely than powder cocaine offenders.
"Obama talked about his opposition to the syringe ban on the campaign trail and mentioned it again in his AIDS Day statement," says Bill Piper, DPA's director of national affairs. "And both Obama and Biden are strong supporters of reforming cocaine-sentencing laws. Even if Congress doesn't pass a [crack cocaine] bill, the administration could instruct federal attorneys to ignore the law. We hope he'll do so."
Another law that reform advocates hope will be ignored is the blanket federal prohibition of marijuana, which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled trumps states' rights to legally grow and distribute marijuana for medical purposes. Obama has criticized federal raids on state-sanction dispensaries as a poor use of federal resources, a popular position. The electoral politics of medical marijuana also favor progress on this front.
"One in four Americans now lives in a medical marijuana state," Aaron Houston, director of government relations at the Marijuana Policy Project, explained to Reason magazine. "And medical marijuana outpolled Obama in Michigan by six points. Medical marijuana states, including Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, were essential to Obama's victory, and continuing a federal war against a quarter of the country would make no sense."
NORML, America's pot-reform spearhead, will push for the establishment of a National Marijuana Commission, modeled on congressional commissions formed in 1970 and 1972 to study pot prohibition. Both prior commissions concluded in favor of decriminalization, and activists think it is high time to throw another national spotlight on the law that last year resulted in 870,000 marijuana arrests.
"Any serious commission today would come to same conclusion [in favor of decriminalization]. We're willing to sit tight for a couple of years as Congress studies it," says NORML's Keith Stroup. "But we want high-profile hearings in the judiciary committees. We want to get our experts up there."
Meanwhile, NORML will push Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., to reintroduce his decriminalization bill, HR5843, also known as the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act. Co-sponsored by former presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, the bill would in effect decriminalize possession of up to an ounce. When introduced last year, it became the first bill to take aim at prohibition since 1982.
Advocates may have their best ally not in the White House or in Congress, but in the economy. As state budgets shrink across the country, legislatures are often forced to choose between education and prison budgets. This phenomenon is most stark in California, where a budget shortfall and massive overcrowding has Gov.Arnold Schwarzenegger talking about letting people go and the legislature discussing sentencing reform.
"During the last recession, we saw an enormous number of states enact reform," says DPA's Piper. "This is the silver lining of an economic downturn. After the recession recedes, the reforms tend to stick, when the states realize they are saving money."
If the economy ends up being the prime mover behind drug reform under Obama and the incoming Congress, it will be better than nothing, but still a sad commentary on the Democratic Party and American democracy in general. Polls and state ballot initiatives continue to show the public widening its lead ahead of their elected leaders on drug policy, who more often than not remain stuck in the 1980s, if not the 1920s. While changing the law ultimately falls upon Congress, Obama could help take his party and the country into the new century by using the bully pulpit to question the premises and effects of the drug war. If he chooses to do so, he is certainly surrounded by enough veteran drug warriors to provide political cover. Who knows? If President Richard Nixon could go to China, maybe Joe Biden & Co. can help Obama make the shorter but equally historic trip down Main Street to the local head shop.
By Alexander Zaitchik
December 23, 2008