Pubdate: Mon, 18 Feb 2008
Source: Post-Bulletin (Rochester, MN)
Copyright: 2008 Post-Bulletin Company, LLC
Author: Sheryl McCarthy
Note: McCarthy is a columnist for Newsday in Long Island, N.Y.


Of all the presidential contenders, Barack Obama has been the most 
forthcoming about his past drug use.

In his autobiography, he admits to having smoked marijuana, using 
some cocaine, briefly flirting with the idea of trying heroin 
(although he never used any) and imbibing a fair amount of alcohol 
when he was in high school and college.

Quizzed about his past drug use, he confessed to having inhaled the 
marijuana smoke, unlike Bill Clinton, who when faced with a similar 
question years ago, claimed that while he had smoked marijuana, he 
didn't inhale.

"I inhaled. ... That was the point," Obama told New Yorker editor 
David Remnick.

Obama's honesty about what he and many other baby boomers did in the 
'60s and '70s, and which some continue to do today, was refreshing, 
given the general hypocrisy most of our politicians exhibit on the 
subject. We haven't heard a peep about marijuana use from Hillary 
Clinton, though it's a rare woman her age who hasn't taken a few 
tokes. But then Clinton is so cautious that you rarely hear anything 
real coming from her.

While he's considerably older than the other candidates, given that 
John McCain served in Vietnam and spent five years as a prisoner of 
war, it's hard to believe that throughout that war and the added 
strain of his internment, when marijuana and much harder drugs were a 
favorite balm of U.S. soldiers, that no illegal substances ever 
touched his lips.

Nor can we expect any admissions from Mike Huckabee, the most avid 
Christian of the bunch, who has said that illegal drug use is not due 
to a failure of education, but to a failure of righteousness.

So having Obama admit to his past drug use is a kind of progress. It 
makes me wonder, should he wind up being our next president, if he 
would be the one to move this country out of its current drug policy rut.

According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, in 2005 police arrested 
almost 800,000 people for marijuana violations, the highest number 
ever recorded by the FBI. The overwhelming majority of these arrests 
were for possession only. Nor do the experts I've talked to suggest 
that the increase is in any way related to an increase in marijuana 
use. It is simply the result of greater harassment, usually of young 
people, and especially of young blacks, even though the research 
shows that whites use marijuana at a higher rate.

Queens College sociologist Harry Levine has done research that found 
that New York City police went on a marijuana arrest binge between 
1997 and 2004, when marijuana arrests in the city increased 
twelvefold.  During that time, marijuana use and availability 
remained largely unchanged.

Police are subjecting young blacks and Latinos to arrest and 
overnight stays in jail, and introducing many who are without 
criminal records to the criminal justice system for offenses so minor 
that they don't even rise to the level of crimes.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission recently approved a slight reduction 
in the sentencing disparity between powder cocaine-related crimes 
versus crack-related crimes, but eliminating the remaining disparity 
is up to Congress. And with a federal ban on the use of marijuana for 
medical purposes having been upheld by a conservative Supreme Court, 
federal drug agents continue to harass doctors and patients in the 12 
states that have declared such use legal.

Politicians, pandering to public fears, continue to denounce 
marijuana with the fervor of the 1930s film "Reefer Madness," which 
claimed that smoking marijuana drove young people crazy, and led to 
violent crime and promiscuity.

How much of a departure from that outdated, erroneous thinking could 
we expect from the four front-runners? Not much from McCain, who is 
as militant about the war on drugs as he is about the war in Iraq.

He favors increasing the penalties for selling drugs, the death 
penalty for drug kingpins, and even restricting the availability of 
methadone to heroin addicts. While he supports expanding federal 
education and treatment programs, he opposes making marijuana 
available for medical reasons.

To his credit, Huckabee, while calling for better patrolling of 
borders against drug smugglers, also supports drug courts and 
alternatives to prison for low-level drug offenders and drug addicts.

Clinton has said that, if elected, she would end federal raids on 
medical marijuana providers, eliminate the sentencing disparity 
between crack and powered cocaine, and oppose hard time for 
nonviolent drug offenders.

During one of the debates, Obama raised his hand with the other 
Democratic candidates when asked if they oppose the decriminalization 
of marijuana, but his campaign has since said that he supports 
decriminalization. And he has gone on record as opposing federal 
raids on medical marijuana providers.

Given his relative youth and his greater distance from older 
politicians who for years have obsessed over the most minor drug 
infractions like dogs picking over a bone, Obama may offer the 
greatest potential for a more enlightened drug policy. But even he 
has described his youthful dalliance with drugs in an apologetic way, 
as being a "mistake" during a time of youthful confusion.

It would be interesting, as he campaigns on college campuses, among 
the young people who have become the rising face of his campaign, if 
someone asked him:

"Mr. Obama, what exactly are you apologizing for?"
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