Monday, July 2, 2012

Will Obama "Tackle" the Drug War in a Second Term?

Political reporter Marc Ambinder is out with an "exclusive" report that President Obama plans to "tackle" the failed drug war if he is granted a second term.

Exclusive: In His Second Term, Obama Will Pivot to the Drug War

Sounds exciting, but don't be fooled by the big headline because the piece itself contains zero details about what the administration allegedly has in mind. A skeptical observer could easily come away from reading this piece thinking that administration/campaign people who recognize the drug war's vast political unpopularity are being somewhat disingenuous with Ambinder.  

Obama -- as candidate and as president -- and his drug czar have already repeatedly talked about scaling back the war on drugs.  But it's been all talk.  Drug Czar Kerlikowske, in his very first interview with the Wall Street Journal after taking office, declared the end of the "war on drugs" terminology.  He has repeatedly said that this is a health and not just a crime issue.  But the problem is: the drug control budget still overwhelmingly devotes more resources to old, failed punishment strategies than to effective treatment and prevention strategies.  The rhetoric doesn't match the reality.

So while Ambinder's story says the administration will use the "bully pulpit" to talk about this issue in the second term, they have already done so in the first term.  Sure, maybe the president himself could do more to forcefully champion this debate, but absent any real policy action it's not going to make a difference in the real medical problem of substance abuse, and it's not going to impress anyone.

Absent any specifics whatsoever about what the president might do during a possible second term, Ambinder's piece today does a disservice to the emerging debate surrounding this issue by letting the administration continue to get away with claiming that they're going to revamp drug polices without actually taking much meaningful action toward that end.
 

Hopefully Ambinder is working on a follow up piece that will go into some real detail as to what, if any, policy changes the administration has in mind for a second term.
 

It's also more than a little disappointing to seem Ambinder going out of his way to poo-poo the importance of legalizing marijuana.  
And the next time a celebrity makes it seem like legalizing marijuana is the be all and end all of drug law reform, slap him in the face. (Metaphorically, unless you want to get your time on TMZ). Legalizing pot is the least of it.
Marijuana arrests account for for half of all drug arrests in the U.S. every year, and these unnecessary law enforcement encounters leave far too many people with criminal records that prevent them from getting jobs, going to school and making something of themselves.  And let's not forget that marijuana is a huge cash crop for gangs and cartels that cut people's heads off. Legalized regulation would deal a bigger financial blow to organized crime than any level of law enforcement dedication or skill in the revolving door "drug war" ever can. 

Perhaps Ambinder's worst mistake in the piece is a factual error:

Don't expect miracles. There is very little the president can do by himself.
Actually, the administration can take very significant unilateral action on this issue, including the rescheduling of marijuana and other drugs as per the Controlled Substances Act. This can be done administratively without congressional action.  

So while we're all of course hoping that the next president -- no matter who he is -- will take meaningful action to address failed and harmful drug policies, Ambinder's report adds nothing new to the emerging drug policy debate except, perhaps, the news that at least some White House or campaign officials are beginning to see the electoral value in their candidate being seen as a drug policy reformer.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

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