Obama "Just Says No" To Restructuring War on Drugs


Two weeks ago at a town hall in Maryland, President Barack Obama answered a question on drug policy from a doctoral student studying — wait for it — political rhetoric. He asked, “When are our [generation's] economic perspectives going to be addressed? For example, when is the war on drugs in society going to be abandoned and be replaced by a more sophisticated and cost effective program of rehabilitation such as the one in Portugal?”

The president's answer echoed his administration's continued position on the drug problem. He spoke about violence in Mexico attributed to drug gangs and our underachieving rehabilitation system, but emphasized that the focal point of the strategy is on reducing American demand for drugs. At the end of his response, he cut to the chase: "[Am] I willing to pursue a decriminalization strategy as an approach? No. But I am willing to make sure that we’re putting more resources on the treatment and prevention side.” 

This town hall was the latest public statement on national drug policy by the president and shows his continued backtracking from statements he made in 2004 on the failure of the war on drugs and support for decriminalization. 

While he stated that his administration has focused on demand instead of interdiction, the president's strategy heavily contradicts rhetoric and action. In the 2011 National Drug Control Strategy from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), a budget was allotted totaling $15.5 billion; funds for treatment and prevention made up about a third at $5.5 billion. Resources to domestic law enforcement totaled $3.9 billion, $3.7 billion spent on interdiction and $2.3 billion for "international support."

The Drug Enforcement Agency, a component of the Justice Department and separate from ONDCP, receives about $2 billion a year, used mostly for supply-reduction efforts domestic and abroad.

Obama spoke about the need to shift away from an approach centered on supply-reduction to one including treatment and prevention but over the last three years, ONDCP's budgets have kept the same priorities. The slices of pie for each of the office’s five functions have remained virtually the same the last three years. The president will continue to play a politically safe position on the failed drug war while giving lip service to treatment and rehabilitation. Don't hold your breath for changes on this issue.

He has failed to realize that while supply-reduction has proven to fall short in preventing drug use and the drug trade, demand reduction efforts cannot succeed in a regime that continues to throw addicts in jail. The over-criminalization of non-violent drug crimes has filled our jails to the brim and leaves the treatment community without adequate resources. How can we have a meaningful dialogue on the drug problem in America while the federal government continually stifles research and education with its outdated "no-tolerance" approach to drugs? Obama has committed himself to staying away from a rational debate on drug policy during his term. 

Official estimates claim that 60% of the profits from Mexican drug cartels are accrued through the sale of cannabis. Of course, American demand feeds the market, but criminalization of the plant coupled with heavy enforcement in Mexico and the U.S. adds a large risk to traffickers. This creates a hefty profit margin for individuals attracted to high-risk professions. Our laws make the illegal market what it is. The U.S. government should allow states to experiment with policy to make sure addicts get treatment, not prison. It should allow the public a real debate on the drug policy. The federal government has only served to make America's drug problem worse and cost taxpayers over $1 trillion during the 40 years it has fought this insane war on drugs.

You can watch the president's response here:

Photo Credit: Poster Boy NYC