Obama, drugs and common sense
— Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —
Barack Obama, January 21, 2004: “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 in the drug war. Currently, we are not doing a good job.”
Amen to that!
Since President Richard Nixon first declared war on drugs in 1969, seven successive administrations have spent billions upon billions on eradicating drug crops abroad, blocking shipments at the country’s borders, and enforcing tough drug laws at home. They failed to curb demand or throttle supplies.
Obama made his assessment of the drug war during a debate at Northwestern University, near Chicago, when he was running for a seat in the U.S. Senate, a key stage in his meteoric political career. Now that Obama is nearing the end of his first year in office as president of the United States, how much rethinking has there been and how good a job is his administration doing on the drug war?
The record is mixed but after decades during which the words common sense and drug policy never fit into the same sentence, American attitudes towards drug prohibition – and above all, punitive laws on marijuana – are changing too fast for policymakers and legislators to ignore.
Public opinion polls reflect steady change. Between 2000 and 2009, the percentage of Americans in favor of full legalization of marijuana rose from 31 percent to 44 percent, according to the polling organization Gallup. If the increase in support continues at the same pace, by 2013 more than half the adult population will back measures to treat marijuana like tobacco and alcohol.
Three milestone events in the past three months are a reason to believe that common sense is beginning to prevail over the blinkered ideology which compelled U.S. administrations to act is if they were trying to prove correct Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
MILESTONES IN 2009
The first milestone was set by Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, on October 19 when he sent new policy guidelines to federal prosecutors telling them that “it will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana.” In plain English: federal agents will not arrest people who use marijuana for medical purposes in the states where that is legal: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
Milestone #2: The American Medical Association (AMA), with about 250,000 members the largest physicians’ organization in the United States, on December 1 changed its long-held attitude on the classification of marijuana as a drug as addictive and dangerous as heroin. AMA urged the federal government to “review marijuana’s status as a Schedule I substance.”
(In the government’s classification, Schedule I embraces a cocktail of drugs that include heroin and LSD.)
Milestone #3: Obama signed into law on Dec. 17 an end-of-the-year spending package, a so-called omnibus bill, that
included a provision to overturn a ban on implementing a medical marijuana law that had been approved with an overwhelming majority by voters in Washington DC in 1988. The U.S. capital is now free to set its own medical marijuana policies for its 600,000 inhabitants.
Changing the laws on marijuana for medical purposes is one thing, blanket legalization another. But pro-reform advocates, such as Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project, see medical marijuana advances as bricks hammered out of an ever-weakening “Berlin Wall of Prohibition.”
While common sense is creeping into domestic drug policies, it is – so far – business as usual for America’s involvement in the seemingly endless and probably unwinnable drug wars abroad, in Latin America and Asia. The same omnibus bill that freed Washington DC to dispense medical marijuana had provisions to continue financing and equipping Mexican and Colombian military and police forces fighting drug producers and traffickers.
But it would be unwise to underrate the global impact of domestic policy changes in the U.S., even though they fall short of legalizing marijuana and regulating its sales like alcohol and tobacco.
After all, the U.S. has long been the spiritual home of prohibition and its most important international champion. Rigidly orthodox American thinking on drugs is reflected in United Nations treaties, including the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which have been obstacles to domestic drug reforms in some signatory nations.
The Single Convention puts marijuana in the most restrictive category, alongside heroin, as does the U.S. federal government. It is a wrong-headed classification that flies in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary but has survived various legal challenges over the past four decades. Time and again, facts that did not fit the drug warriors’ preconceptions were simply ignored.
Example: A 1988 finding from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s then administrative law judge, Francis Young.
“In strict medical terms,” he wrote after a hearing on the matter, “marijuana is far safer than many foods we commonly consume. For example, eating ten raw potatoes can result in a toxic response. By comparison, it is physically impossible to eat enough marijuana to induce death.”
Which helps explain marijuana’s enduring position as the most widely used illicit drug not only in the United States but in the world. The U.N. World Drug Report 2008 estimated there were 162 million users around the world. The 2009 report gave a range of up to 190 million. Numbers like these make a mockery of prohibition laws. It’s high time to repeal them.