Opinion

Bernd Debusmann

Obama and the failed war on drugs

By Bernd Debusmann
April 16, 2012

Long before he was in a position to change his country’s policies, Barack Obama had firm views on a complex problem: “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.”

That was in January 2004, during a debate at Northwestern University, when he was running for a seat in the U.S. Senate. To make sure his student audience understood his position on the controversial issue, Obama added: “Currently, we are not doing a good job.”

To look at a classic flip-flop, forward to April 2012 and a summit of Latin American leaders, several of whom have become vocal critics of the U.S.-driven war on drugs, in the Colombian city of Cartagena. More than three years into his presidency, Obama made clear that he is not in favor of legalizing drugs or of ending policies that treat drug users as criminals.

“I don’t mind a debate around issues like decriminalization,” he said at the Cartagena summit. “I personally don’t agree that’s a solution to the problem.” Decriminalization means scrapping criminal penalties for the use of drugs. It falls short of legalization which, in its purest form, means the abolition of all forms of government control of drugs. Obama is against that, too. “I don’t think that legalization of drugs is going to be the answer,” he said.

So what is the answer? In his first year in office, Obama talked about placing more emphasis on curbing demand – the United States is the world’s richest market for illicit drugs – and less on enforcing punitive laws that filled American prisons with drug offenders and helped turn the country into the world’s chief jailer. It has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

But the rebalancing and the rethinking Obama mentioned before and after becoming president have been largely rhetorical. His administration has not put its money where its mouth is. Those who complain that the Obama administration is not doing enough to reduce demand can point to the proposed National Drug Control Budget for the 2013 fiscal year, which begins in October.

The allocation of funds is pretty much the same as it was in the administrations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton – roughly 40 percent for programs aimed at curbing demand and treating addicts and 60 percent for enforcing anti-drug laws, throttling the flow of drugs across the long border with Mexico and financing the eradication of drug crops in Latin America and Asia.

The 2013 budget proposal allocates 41.2 percent for demand reduction and 58.2 percent for law enforcement. In other words, more of the same — policies that have been pursued since President Richard Nixon first declared war on drugs in 1970. Obama’s 2004 assessment of those policies – “utter failure” – has come to be shared by many even though he no longer stands by it and even though members of his team such as Homeland Security chiefJanet Napolitano insist the old approach is working.

A TRILLION-DOLLAR WAR

By some estimates, the war on drugs has so far cost close to a trillion dollars. What has that vast expenditure bought? Very little. According to the government’s latest “Survey on Drug Use and Health,” more than 22 million Americans – nearly 9 percent the U.S. population – used illegal drugs in 2010, up from 8 percent in 2008.

That demand and the vast profits derived from it, has prompted violence on a mind-boggling scale south of the U.S. border. In Mexico alone, around 50,000 people have died in the past six years as drug cartels fight each other – for access to supply lines to the U.S. market – and the Mexican state.

Drug-fueled violence is not restricted to Mexico. According to the United Nations, eight of the world’s most violent countries are in Latin America. The small states of Central America, astride trafficking corridors to the north, are particularly vulnerable. Honduras now has the world’s highest murder rate. Guatemala is not far behind.

Which explains why Guatemala’s president, Otto Perez, has emerged as the most outspoken proponent of the need for new ways of tackling an old problem. Perez, a former army general, has impeccable credentials as a hard-line drug warrior. So has the host of the Cartagena summit, Colombian President Juan Manual Santos, a former defense minister.

Their views echo the arguments of a panel of high-profile establishment figures who published a devastating critique of the drug war last June. It made headlines the world over but apparently failed to convince the Obama administration. “Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply and consumption,” said the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

“Apparent victories in eliminating one source or trafficking organization are negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers,” the report added. “The … global scale of illegal drug markets – largely controlled by organized crime – has grown dramatically.” That report was put together by former government leaders, including three former Latin American presidents and a former U.N. secretary-general.

Several prominent advocates of drug policy reforms in the United States and elsewhere see the fact that calls for change now come from sitting (rather than former) presidents as a sign that the end of the drug war as we knew it is in sight. Perhaps. But optimistic drug reformers might do well to remember that there is an entrenched international anti-drug establishment that provides employment for thousands of people, from narcotics agents and intelligence analysts to prison wardens. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration alone has 10,000 employees and offices in 63 countries.

That establishment has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. As with other conflicts, the war on drugs was easier to start than to end.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talk during the plenary session of the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena April 14, 2012. Obama tried on Saturday to convince skeptical Latin Americans that Washington has not turned its back on them, but ruled out a drug policy U-turn that some in the region want. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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Find out why more and more cops, judges, and prosecutors who have fought on the front lines of the “war on drugs” are standing up and saying we need to legalize and regulate marijuana and other drugs to help solve our economic, crime, and public health problems: http://www.CopsSayLegalizeDrugs.com

Posted by CopsSayLegalize | Report as abusive
 

The War on Drugs is an attack on the American people that primarily effects people of color. Maintaining the status quo for a failed policy that has wasted a trillion dollars to make drugs more potent and more readily available to our children (SAMHSA) is not acceptable to the American people. Several states will launch initiatives to openly regulate the consumption of marijuana and sixteen states have passed laws to allow for the use as an organically grown natural remedy. The federal government has interfered in a matter that is more properly left to the control of the states. Support HR 2306 to allow states to decide these matters and to end federal interference.

Posted by Dave_K | Report as abusive
 

I believe that employing those 10,000 people is the only even remotely positive thing the DEA does. How is it not apparent that the more you press on those who sell drugs, the more lucrative you make their business? And that people love drugs as much as booze and fireworks?

While we’re on a great ideas binge, lets label a large number of small time dealers as felons so they can’t be employed in the future — essentially guaranteeing they’ll stay unemployed and return to crime. Then for kicks and giggles, after we catch them we’ll group ‘em up and put ‘em all in the same place for a few years at the cost of around 50k a year to John Q. Taxpayer before we release them back into the general public with the hope that they’ve learned their lesson. Many do indeed learn their lesson: don’t get caught. There’s certainly no lack of teachers in prison. The stupidity makes your head spin.

Posted by CapitalismSays | Report as abusive
 

The only apparent solution is to legalize it maybe not all drugs but marijuana probably the most used drug in the US and the world. The war on drugs is simply a replay of the war on alcohol during the prohibition. Criminal acts rose during that time and as soon as it was legalized it all went away. Its simple legalize and control with major taxation and rules as is with alcohol and tobacco. Now I’m not saying legalize cocaine, meth ecstasy etc but the biggest drug being supplied south of the border marijuana which also happens to be the safest and the only one that has not caused one death to the users of it.

Posted by jmhh | Report as abusive
 

If drugs, specifically marijuana, were legalized, the price would plummet which would great reduce the “profit sharing” (i.e. campaign contributions) paid to the political class and to law enforcement management.

This would be a financial catastrophe! Just as repealing Prohibition slashed bribes paid to judges and law enforcement throughout the USA was. But then, before computing models, politicians had a much loser grip on the throat of the voters. Now, choices are not presented, only mini-Morality Plays.

Until the system of splashing white paint on what are clearly bribes to public officials is changed, there will never be drug reform, or a stop to wars. They are getting far, far too rich. The only problem might come when they have imprisoned over 95% of the population.

Money is the root of all evil. Then and now.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive
 

I also suspect the price would not drop without government intervention to break up the cartels. Given our current profit-maximizing economic paradigm, as seen with prescription marijuana, the price may likely remain at the pre-existing market level, which regardless of its anti-competitive origins, is preferrable to suppliers. If the government could take control of the production and distribution network, the price could be significantly reduced, thus alleviating many of the associated problems with drug use – users spend too much money they can’t afford to spend. But there are presently too many moral, ethical, legal, social and other obstacles present which prevent more organized management of the trade, which contributes significantly to the world GDP and even more so to national GDPs in countries like Bolivia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Colombia, and US inner-cities.

Posted by adamt78 | Report as abusive
 

Today Obama says tens of billions of dollars will continue to be spent on the failed policy, “we’re not going to relent on our effort.”

The best documentary on the failed drug war, “The House I Live In,” questions why the United States has spent more than $1 trillion on drug arrests in the past 40 years, and yet drugs are cheaper, purer and more available today than ever. The film examines the economic, as well as the moral and practical, failures of the so-called “war on drugs” and calls on the United States to approach drug abuse not as a “war,” but as a matter of public health. We need “a very changed dialogue in this country that understands drugs as a public health concern and not a criminal justice concern,” says the film’s director, Eugene Jarecki. “That means the system has to say, ‘We were wrong.’”

http://www.democracynow.org/2012/1/31/th e_house_i_live_in_new

U.S. Out of Oakland! We need gun control, not a bunch of DEA agents with nothing better to do, raiding peaceful businesses and educational institutions.

Posted by PunkToad | Report as abusive
 

This is just another political issue that revolves around money, not logic or the needs of society. Hundreds of thousands of unionized government workers (police and prison personnel) owe their livelyhood to the war on drugs. In round numbers we spend as much on the “war” as the entire illicit drug industry produces or about $100 billion per year. Half of all federal prisoners are serving time for drug related crimes. This is a big time business. The political class knows where their bread is buttered.

Posted by gordo53 | Report as abusive
 

The War on Drugs – Observations from the Front

Dan Cain

Dan Cain, President of RS Eden, has 34 years experience in the Chemical Dependency Field as counselor, supervisor and administrator, and has been Chair and CEO of numerous chemical dependency coalitions. Formerly incarcerated himself, Mr. Cain has been awarded the 1991 Corrections Person of the Year and the 2007 Hazelden C.A.R.E. Award for continuous service to the recovery community.

Substance abuse, while existing since the beginning of recorded history, remains enigmatic. And proposed solutions to it have ranged from tolerance, to prohibition, to treatment, to draconian punishment, depending on the politics of the moment.

For many of those alive today, our experience with, and awareness of, illegal substances began in the 1960’s, when we were faced with an influx of illegal drugs, when the mood of the day was one of tolerance and free expression, when the populace was looking for answers to, among other things, an unpopular war and disenchantment with the status quo, and when the explosion of young people; early baby boomers; began to become a political force. Use of marijuana, the most commonly used illegal substance, was largely ignored. For those convicted of possession of drugs like heroin and cocaine, statutes generally called for an indeterminate sentence of 0-5 years with most of those convicted being placed on probation. Treatment, outside of fledgling 12 step programs directed primarily at alcoholism, was limited largely to two separate National Institute of Mental Health, Clinical Research Centers; one located in Lexington, Kentucky and the other in Fort Worth, Texas. Under the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act, they were designed to do little more than provide a six month respite, in a secure setting.

However, the mood changed dramatically in 1969 shortly after a series of murders in Southern California by perpetrators commonly referred to as the Manson Family. The high-profile crimes shocked the nation and, since the assailants were stereotyped as “drug crazed hippies”, the tolerant attitude was replaced by one of fear and trepidation.

The term “War on Drugs” was first coined by Richard Nixon in 1971, when he signed into law legislation appropriating $155 million. For whatever reason, whether because he saw a reduction in substance abuse as the keystone to a reduction in crime, because of the high number of Viet-Nam veterans who were returning as narcotic addicts, or for some other more political or less utilitarian reason, $105 million of that was targeted toward treatment and rehabilitation, and only $50 million toward enforcement and interdiction. So the original “War on Drugs” could more appropriately be termed a “War on Drug Abuse”.

The system response continued to focus on rehabilitation throughout much of the 1970’s, however the demand for treatment resulted in a growing number of treatment programs and increased costs per treatment episode. While there was still an emphasis on publically funded treatment, in the late 1970’s we initiated efforts to control costs by reducing treatment stays and expanding the use of outpatient services, and to improve outcomes by implementing various costly, but usually inconsistent, gate-keeping functions. Program lengths of stay were dramatically reduced to accommodate access issues and reduced resources. Effectiveness suffered.

The direction took a dramatic turn with the advent of a new decade, perhaps because of a change in administration, possibly due to awareness of how drug profits were used to finance armed, worldwide, political disturbances or maybe because of the lucrative drug trade being used to finance street gangs. The emphasis became interdiction and enforcement and the treatment response was reduced dramatically. People were told to “Just Say No” to drugs. (one of the more cynical responses to the “Just Say No” campaign came from Abbie Hoffman, a 1960’s radical who opined that telling an addict to “Just Say No” was like telling someone who was clinically depressed to “Just Cheer Up”)

Our policies became somewhat schizophrenic throughout the early part of the decade. Decisions about the dangers of, and political response to, a particular drug were rooted in politics and preference more than pharmacology or potential for harm. For example, marijuana users were again vilified and taunted with messages such as, “if you smoke marijuana, you bear responsibility for the torture and death of Enrique Camarena (a DEA agent killed in Mexico)”. Yet during the same time frame, cocaine use was largely tolerated, presumably because it was the drug of choice for socialites, sports figures and entertainers. It was not until cocaine was marketed as “crack”, a concentrated form of the drug that was more affordable to the lower class, that we developed a more measured response. Prior to 1985, the Minnesota Legislature, and by extension the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, treated sale and possession of cocaine in the same vein as sale and possession of marijuana, with drugs like heroin and methamphetamine prescribed much harsher penalties. In 1985, cocaine penalties were changed by the MSGC to coincide with those for heroin. Shortly thereafter, after defining “crack” as a new and more dangerous drug than cocaine, the legislature took this so called “war” one step further by delineating drug crimes by the amount of drug possessed or sold, and by extension made the penalty for “crack” ten times harsher than the ones for powdered cocaine and heroin. Ultimately this law was overturned as being racially discriminatory as a result of the disparate impact on communities of color.

Our efforts continued to be skewed toward enforcement and interdiction throughout the next several years and in 1989 the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) was established. Bill Bennett, whose conservative credentials went unchallenged (until a gambling addiction was uncovered years later), was named the new “Drug Czar”. The purpose of the new ONDCP was to produce a National Drug Control Strategy. The strategy was, control the borders and imprison users.

It was also in 1989 that the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission essentially doubled the penalties for most drug crimes.

With few exceptions we have continued down the path of enforcement and incarceration, with less regard for rehabilitation, for the past 18 years. One of those exceptions has been the advent, and subsequent growth of the drug court movement. In recognition of the need to have both enforcement/accountability and rehabilitation, select court systems formed partnership with the local treatment communities to work in concert with select offenders. These complimentary unions of two systems, with the intent to keep people in their communities has shown promise not only in reducing drug crime, but also in helping people progress toward law abiding, self-sufficient lifestyles.

The positive impact of our actions over the past 4 decades is debatable. Per capita spending on enforcement, interdiction and incarceration is up. We seize more drugs at our borders than at any point in history. Per capita spending on treatment is lower than it has been since the 1970’s. Drug crimes account for the largest growth area in prison populations, and the number of people in prison today is four times what it was in 1980. Populations of color within the corrections system have expanded exponentially. And drug use, as well as drug related crime, has not noticeably declined. On the other hand, there is no way of knowing the outcome had other approaches been followed. The presumption has been, remove drugs and drug users from the community and both drug use and other crimes will go down. Neither of those seem to have happened, but what we don’t know is how bad it would be if we had gone in another direction.

While writing this, I was contacted by a local radio station to get my reaction to the relaxation of FBI eligibility rules. Previously, perspective agents needed to swear under oath that they had not used illegal drugs other than marijuana, and had not used marijuana in over 15 years. The new change only required that they swear they hadn’t used illegal drugs in the recent past, defined as anything less than three years. My reaction was, after one president admittedly smoked marijuana but allegedly didn’t inhale, and another refused to deny using cocaine, an FBI agent who had previously smoked cannibis seemed tame. Furthermore the change was probably motivated by recruiting demands. Given the widespread experimentation of more tolerant times, the Bureau was faced with the lesser of two evils, either accept someone who experimented with drugs, or accept someone you intuitively know to be lying under oath. Similar to the armed forces, the Bureau was undoubtedly faced with either accepting previously disqualifying behavior, or having a candidate pool too small to meet the need. The bright point in all this is that major bureaucratic institutions relaxing their rules may be a signal that we are finally willing to accept that people make mistakes and can not only change, but make major contributions.

As a Nation, over the past 40 years, we have declared war on poverty, war on hunger, war on crime, war on terrorism, war on drugs and war on other countries. War implies casualties. And in the War on Drugs, if not in all these testosterone laden euphemisms, people in poverty and people of color are dramatically overrepresented in the casualty counts. By focusing our efforts on punishment at the expense of rehabilitation, we have created many casualties, not only in the present tense, but for the foreseeable future, since 98% of those imprisoned will eventually be released. And, unless our sole objective in this war was to marginalize whole segments of our population, none of our efforts so far have resulted in victory, at least not by any traditional standard.

It may be time to reexamine our approach, as well as our vernacular.

Posted by Skier_Rick | Report as abusive
 

Obama has betrayed the voters who supported him. He promised hope and change, but delivered mostly the status quo. He sold his soul to retain power. In in doing so, he has demoralized everyone who hoped for change. Will they now believe it is pointless to vote, since even the most inspiring politician cannot be trusted?

Too bad Romney will likely be the only alternative in this year’s election. He is nothing but a rich man’s candidate.

What America needs now is a liberal presidential candidate who has courage, conviction, and imagination. Hopefully, such a third candidate will emerge.

Posted by DifferentOne | Report as abusive
 

Nonsense, blame all the other clown presidents that came before him, too. You want to get to the heart of this? Ban all cash transactions greater than $2500. Easily done with the tools we have today. How are you going to launder money with that limitation? It will probably force a lot of illegal activity to cease, at least temporarily.

Posted by GetReallyReal | Report as abusive
 

Prohibition with respect to alcohol is still the law in many counties of many states (http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/5 9624000/gif/_59624794_us_drink_map_v6_62 4.gif). Good luck legalizing cannabis, cocaine, heroin, etc. If anything, the American drug warriors are weakening the lines on the contraceptive front. As the USA is a republic, where legislators serve only so long as they are elected, you can thank your fellow Americans for this state of affairs.

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive
 

Might be worth noting that it is legislators who craft legislation in the USA as a whole, and even in the individual states, be they ever so haughty. You could elect presidents and governors who share your views on everything (given sufficiently advanced science to clone your political self as needed) from now to forever, and it wouldn’t change a thing as long as the legislators remained the type we are now accustomed to electing. You might therefore wish that more attention were paid to the “down ticket” races. Not to worry. Usually when that happens, we get worse legislators. Take the Tea Party, for example.

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive
 

Americans look to the President for a sense of direction. A few well-chosen words from him could have an enormous impact, and open the door to change. Unfortunately, Obama’s direction on drug policy has been uninspiring, unimaginative, and unhelpful.

Perhaps it should be the South American leaders who should draft a new drug law for the USA. Or a private organization such as NORML could do it. Sadly, no USA politician seems to have the courage.

Posted by DifferentOne | Report as abusive
 

What I find interesting yet hypocritical is that everyone talks about Obama not doing this or not doing that, he’s failed, get him out, etc etc. Hasn’t all this happened before with prior presidents and or leaders?? “Obama and the failed war on drugs”. This is not an “obama” problem, its a problem that has plagued the US for decades. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes millions to “raise a nation” not just one person or president. Stop looking to one person for all the answers and look for change in YOU first. Changing our way of thinking and feelings for one another is and will be the FIRST step to prosperity. Anything else is just wishful thinking and pipe-dreaming. We are dealing with issues of morality across the board.

Posted by Dahc | Report as abusive
 

“His administration has not put its money where its mouth is.”

Why should he? He can simply raise taxes and put other peoples’ money where his mouth is.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive
 

Don’t blame Obama?? Don’t blame Obama for flipflopping on his own stance on marijuana? He used it himself and knows that the propaganda about it is false. Yes, the DEA, cops, and prisons make money, but guess who is behind a partnership for for a drug free America? The alcohol and tobacco companies!!!!!! (of course!) As if THEY aren’t drugs of the worst caliber, and kill more than 200,000 people every year 30,000 of which are INNOCENT bystanders whereas pot has not one documented death attributed to it’s usage unless you count someone who goes to prison and gets killed as a result. But, let’s not let the facts get in the way of political lunacy. When the marijuana users outnumber all the other people who are against it’s use and we all come out of hiding and in great force and numbers and march for our civil liberties (WHO ARE WE HURTING….FOR GOD’S SAKE, SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHY A 54 YEAR OLD OTHERWISE LAW ABIDING, TAX PAYING CITIZEN SHOULD FEEL LIKE A CRIMINAL?) then and only then will this nonsense end. I cannot stand the hypocrisy of a country that shows alcohol commercials like it’s the the greatest social drink on the planet, when we all know how much misery the abuse of it causes, while making something like marijuana illegal and the only thing that abusing it will cause is the munchies or make you too sleepy to stay up late. It doesn’t make people lazy just because some lazy people use it either. Anything can be abused, even food (as we ALL know) but, that is no reason to ban it for the people who can and will use it responsibly (just like the beer ads remind us)

Posted by Valorie | Report as abusive
 

“The War on Drugs is an attack on the American people that primarily effects people of color. ”

So Obama’s now a racist against “people of color” by continuing the policy? I figured someone would eventually get around to accusing even him of it, just didn’t see it coming from the drug policy.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive
 

The simple reality is that if Obama proposes an end, or even a cease fire, to the War on Drugs, he will be eaten alive by his political opponents. He will lose on every other policy front and certainly not win reelection. This is not his fault. It is our faults. If enough of us change, he would go along.

For this reason, I’ve long maintained that the first president to push for an end to our current approach will have to be a Republican. Just as only long-time “commie fighter” Nixon could go to China, only a politician with solid conservative credibility will be able to cede the point. It’s either that, or we wait until another generation comes along who are educated on the issue.

Human ignorance truly is awful.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive
 

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