The Cannabis Column


Obama Drug Policy: Prohibition Today, Prohibition Forever


Little whispers are in circulation that the Obama Administration plans to soften the drug war after the election. The signals, if accurate, suggest minor modifications in both federal policy and rhetoric, but no fundamental change in the basic policy of prohibition today and prohibition forever.


Two new reports in July are behind predictions about second-term drug policy reforms, should the President win re-election. 


The first is a blog by Marc Ambinder on titled “In His Second Term, Obama Will Pivot the Drug War.” Ambinder does not provide specifics, but reports that Obama’s aides and associates indicate he plans to tackle the drug war in a second term, and that “from his days as a state senator in Illinois, Obama has considered the Drug War to be a failure, a conflict that has exacerbated the problem of drug abuse, devastated entire communities, changed policing practices for the worse, and has led to a generation of young children, disproportionately black and minority, to grow up in dislocated homes, or in none at all."


The second piece is a Huffington Post blog by Nick Wing that follows up on Ambinder’s report titled “Obama Will Seek to Scale Back Drug War in Second Term.” Wing reports that “Sources close to the White House also told The Huffington Post that the administration is looking at ways that it can reduce barriers to reentering society for those caught up in the drug war, such as a longstanding policy that denies federal financial aid to college students convicted of drug-related offenses, including possession.”


Wing quotes Ken Sabet, a former Obama Administration drug policy advisor, that the planned reforms will not satisfy legalization advocates. According to Sabet “Though it's not the kind of reform legalization advocates might have wanted, the President's drug policy has already been innovative, public health-oriented, and cost-effective.” Wing also reports that Tom Angell, from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), considers reports “about scaling back the war on drugs” to be “all talk” in which “the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality.”


Tom Angell is right, absolutely right. And Gil Kerlikowski, White House drug control policy chief, is adamant that no significant change in policy is imminent. As reported in US News and World Report, Kerlikowski explains that “legalization isn’t going to solve our drug problem.” Kerlikowski refuses to use the term drug war, telling US News for example that “It's a mistake to call it a war … because that lends itself to a simple solution."


The conceit that drug policy is a complex problem has been used for decades to evade responsibility for the failure of prohibition to accomplish its objectives. It allows public officials to reorganize programs, re-define objectives, and refine terminology so that they appear to respond to criticism without changing the fundamental basis for this area of public policy. The premise of this approach is that there is nothing wrong with the policy, just the way it has been implemented.


Supporters of prohibition are desperate to keep this a complex issue which requires complex solutions. Consider the following “Principles of Modern Drug Policy” presented by Kerlikowski’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

1. Ensure Balanced, Compassionate, and Humane Drug Policies.

2. Integrate Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery Support Services into Public Health Systems.

3. Protect Human Rights.

4. Reduce Drug Use to Reduce Drug Consequences.

5. Support and Expand Access to Medication-Assisted Therapies.

6. Reform Criminal Justice Systems to Support both Public Health and Public Safety.

7. Disrupt Drug Trafficking.

8. Address the Drug Problem as a Shared Responsibility.

9. Support the UN Drug Conventions.

10. Protect Citizens from Drugs.


These principles explain that the issue is not a choice between enforcement-only and legalization, but rather a matter of combining “cost-effective, evidence-based approaches that protect public health and safety” because “drugs are illegal because their use is dangerous not only to users but to society as a whole.” People need to be arrested for drug offenses, ONDCP explains, because “Criminal justice systems play a vital role in breaking the cycle of drug use, crime, incarceration, and re-arrest. While individuals should be held responsible for breaking the law, the criminal justice system should help bring them into contact with treatment services if they are suffering from a substance use disorder.” Drug policy reform “policies and programs such as injection rooms, drug distribution efforts, and drug legalization should be opposed because they tolerate drug use and allow the debilitating disease of addiction to continue untreated.”


This is the same old song that always emanates from the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Consider the following comments:


[A]ny significant relaxation of drug enforcement – for whatever reason, however well-intentioned – would promise more use, more crime, and more trouble for desperately needed treatment and education efforts.”


“Legal sanctions may help to deter drug use, and they can be used to direct some drug users to needed treatment. But locking up millions of drug users will not by itself make them healthy and responsible citizens.”


“[S]tronger and better coordinated drug enforcement aloneis not the answer. It is a means to an end. It should not become the end itself. We must be tough. We must be humane. And we must pursue change – in some cases, sweeping change.”


“The simple problem with drugs is painfully obvious: too many Americans still use them. And so the highest priority of our drug policy must be a stubborn determination further to reduce the overall level of drug use nationwide – experimental first use, “casual” use, regular use, and addiction alike.”


“The United States has a broad array of tools at its disposal, in government and out, each of which – in proper combination with the others – can and does have a significant effect on the shape and size of our drug problem. We must use them all. We must have what we have never had before: a comprehensive, fully integrated national drug control strategy.”


The Office of National Drug Control Policy was created by Congress during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. The first director of ONDCP was William Bennett. The comments above are all taken from Bennett’s introduction to the 1989 National Drug Control Strategy. Kerlikowski’s ONDCP is advancing the same approach as Bennett’s ONDCP; in terms of their fundamental approach Barack Obama’s ONDCP is little different from George H.W. Bush’s ONDCP. 


The programs get reorganized, the objectives get redefined, and the rhetoric gets further refined. But the foundation of federal policy is that prohibition is necessary to reduce drug use and coerce users into drug treatment. Prohibition has failed for decades. Yet the policy of the Obama Administration is to continue these practices. The drug policy of the Obama Administration remains the same, Prohibition Today, Prohibition Forever.



Jon Gettman is a long time contributor to HIGH TIMES.  A former National Director of NORML, Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy and regional economic development and consults with attorneys, advocates, and non-profits on cannabis related research and public policy issues.  On October 8, 2002,  along with a coalition of organizations, he filed a new petition to have cannabis rescheduled under federal law.  This column will track that petition's progress.