This week, no less than eight former directors of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) signed onto a public letter to two Senators accusing the Obama Administration of abandoning the War on Drugs simply because he has indicated he plans to largely respect the decisions of voters in Colorado and Washington when they legalized marijuana in November. President Obama would be esteemed by many if he were to restrain federal agents more than he did during his first term with regard to raids of medical marijuana dispensaries in other states, such as California or the 17 other states where the voters have supported medical marijuana. In fact, President Obama promised before entering the presidency that his justice department would not be perpetrating the failed War on Drugs as so many presidents had done before him, but this is one area where people can point to what the President said he would do and what he actually did, and the disparity is unfortunately significant. Once he got into office, he faced tremendous pressures from lobbyists who stoke the War on Drugs, and the primary culprits are enforcers like the DEA and the profiteers of this ‘war’, such as the prison industrial complex. As Mansfield Frazier writes,
“Obama was forced to drink the DEA Kool-Aid upon assuming office, and by now he’s addicted. He can’t stop until the DEA stops. If interdiction worked, the price of drugs would go up due to the scarcity created (that old law of supply and demand again), but over the last few decades the price of a kilo of coke has gone down, not up.”
The decision of these eight DEA thugs to gang up on the President when he is showing signs of making wiser policy decisions about the War on Drugs is disturbing. The DEA has been allowed to move beyond an agency taking directives from government to an agency trying to dictate to government how it should be run. Their political influence has run amok, and their power is only reinforced by the private prison industry that counts on a steady supply of non-violent drug offenders to fill their cells. Federal prisons have swelled 790% since 1980, driven substantially by the War on Drugs.
Up until now, the Justice Department under Obama has been identified by marijuana advocates as less reasonable than even the Bush administration had been, even drawing the charge of carrying out Obama’s War on Pot. When his fiscal year 2013 budget came out, there was disagreement about whether it signaled a partial stand-down in the Drug War or not. Advocacy groups like the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) felt the budget was a disappointment, because it once again emphasized law enforcement over public health interventions. Other people saw small improvements in policy, such as the slash in budgetary funds to helicopter patrols for marijuana crops. Although the DOJ has not issued their policy on legal dispensaries in Colorado and Washington, and we have only Obama’s vague promise not to go after recreational users, the current drug czar has made statements indicating that the feds plan to ignore state law. Instead, they will potentially raid legal distributors with federal charges including the harsh federal mandatory minimum jail sentence of ten years just for marijuana distribution.
This is a pivotal time for President Obama. Will he be the first to say, “Enough is enough?” Will he get the chance to view the heartbreaking, acclaimed documentary, “The House I Live In,” by Eugene Jarecki, and be reminded of the costs of the War on Drugs that ultimately has no winners? Or will the DEA, private prison industry, law enforcement unions, and alcohol/pharmaceutical companies prevail?
President Obama has always been clear that he doesn’t favor legalization, and he isn’t diverging from many progressives who have chosen to make this their mantle, usually under the presumption, “We’re doing this for the children.” Those familiar with the Vice President know he is a strong proponent of the Drug War, as are several members of the Kennedy family, and plenty of other Democrats. As Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post wrote,
“Cracking down on drinking and drug use fits into the progressive notion that government power should be marshaled to improve society and the people within it… Understanding the role that liberalism played in launching the drug war is critical for anyone looking to roll it back.”
In general, the idea is that the state should criminalize drugs, because this will control abuse and addiction. This isn’t all that different from progressive stances on other laws to prevent harm to society. Progressives have fought for bans on smoking in restaurants, for seat belt laws, and motorcycle helmet laws. The same compulsion to ban soft drinks over a certain size compels progressives to want to control all kinds of potentially “negative” behaviors. A desire to improve public health drives a lot of policy for liberals. What is unfortunate is that bedeviling “law of unintended consequences” has caught hold of the best of intentions in the War on Drugs.
Good-hearted people wanted to prevent scenes of strung-out young people selling their bodies for their next fix. But it still happens throughout the country on a daily basis. They wanted to make drugs less available to young people. The War on Drugs has definitely failed in this goal. It isn’t for lack of trying; it’s just policy makers went about it in the wrong way: through enhanced law enforcement and punishment. Someone is arrested for a marijuana crime every 42 seconds in the U.S. Policy makers believed they identified marijuana as a “gateway” drug that, if kept illegal, would halt the exploration of hard-core drugs. Research shows it is not a gateway drug, and in fact, legal alcohol is. Either way, exploration of hard-core drugs has ebbed and flowed with the fashions of youth; heroin, once a scourge of the 1970s, was largely gone for over a decade, only to return, especially recently. Rates of drug use trend slightly upward or downward with each decade, but what they don’t respond to is the War on Drugs. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse just lauded the fact that “cigarette and alcohol use are at a historic low among teens,” while in the same article expressing ongoing concerns about rates of marijuana usage in youth. Apparently, whether drugs are legal is not affecting teen behavior.
Interestingly, using a very different strategy than a “War on Drugs,” European countries have been using public health, harm reduction, and treatment approaches and meeting with dramatically greater success. This week’s headline from the Guardian is, “Number of heroin and crack cocaine users falls to record low, figures show.” Follow-up results on the decade of decriminalization of all drugs that took place in Portugal shows only positive results; they haven’t eliminated drug use or abuse, but they reduced it. Their decision to legalize hard drugs like heroin has helped reduced the spread of HIV. Some people, here in the States even, think we should consider a decriminalization of heroin to help with our scourge.
The fact is a young, developing brain shouldn’t be exposed to any drug. The prohibitionists have the science and the data to back them up on this. Even the beloved marijuana, favored by enthusiasts of safer mind-altering, more potentially medicinal drugs, need to realize that research shows it can cause disturbing psychiatric symptoms in adolescents. In addition, the sheer immaturity of youth means that they are less likely to make good decisions, such as avoiding a toke before algebra class. It just isn’t effective at enhancing learning of this nature. However, prohibitionists need to realize that the criminalization they continue to advocate is counter-productive and destructive to whole segments of society.
Along with all of the failures to prevent drug abuse and addiction that come along with the War on Drugs are the casualties. They are the poor, minorities, children, and, yes the users themselves, who need treatment not incarceration. They are the people wiped out in the violence of it all. There have been stories of the young people put into harm’s way by the police in their efforts to ferret out drug kingpins. According to Kappeler and Potter, authors of “Myths of and Criminal Justice, 81% of drug arrests in the US are for possession and only 19% are for selling or manufacturing. Furthermore, the average “seller” is a low-level dealer, not a “kingpin” who is usually dealing to supplement a low-wage job and only deals part-time to cover the costs of their own consumption. Former DEA officers have admitted they target minorities. Overly punitive punishments have led hundreds of thousands of people to have lifelong criminal records that leave them struggling to find jobs, secure loans for college, or even vote. Those sentences are often widely disparate based on the racially-based nature of the drug of choice, and many a judge has protested that the minimum federal sentences are ridiculously harsh.
There are the millions of usually minority, usually poor children who have watched a parent hauled off to prison on a non-violent drug offense. These broken families only perpetuate another generation of drug abusers, not to mention children who suffer from the whole range of social ills. Asset forfeiture has become commonplace, and there are few constitutional protections for the property owner. There is not even a requirement that the property owner be prosecuted for the crime; 80% of people who forfeit property were never charged with a crime. In the case of acquittal, there is no recourse for the victim of the overzealous authorities. People begin to imagine that “One Strike Policies,” in public housing are stemming the drug trade (they’ve had no impact), instead of just causing misery to bystanders in the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs has escalated to the point where employers get to test employees for drugs when there is no probable cause or safety concern. This only fuels the demands of sadistic people who hate the poor, and lick their lips waiting for the opportunity to drug test them all in exchange for any help they receive. Then, in the event a drug test is positive, rather than extending an offer of treatment, the testing advocates want to see the person who failed the test homeless, hungry, and dying a slow death. The list of consequences for keeping the War on Drugs going is long and miserable.
Conversely, the decriminalization of marijuana in California has already led a 20% decrease in arrests of juveniles. That’s fewer young people in the pipeline to prison, fewer youth labeled as criminals, and more youth given a chance to grow out of the rebellious years (such as Obama admits to having) without having devastating lifelong consequences. One Mexican think tank estimates that legalization in the States would weaken their drug cartels. They aren’t the first to notice that cartels and black markets flourish under conditions of prohibition.
President Obama has a chance to address drug abuse and addiction in an evidence-based, scientific manner rather than based on the political pressures of lobbyists, the prison industry, and blind social prejudice. If he does so, he will be retreating from the War on Drugs. He will be advocating harm reduction through investment in treatment and prevention, and dramatic cuts to interdiction, law enforcement, and the prison industry. The War on Drugs has already been lost; it is just up to a courageous President to stand up to lobbyists and make them face the truth. As Lewis Lapham said regarding the War on Drugs, “Whether declared by church or state, the war against human nature is by definition lost.”
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.