Pubdate: Fri, 15 May 2009
Source: Huffington Post (US Web)
Copyright: 2009 HuffingtonPost com, Inc.
Author: Arianna Huffington


When it comes to addressing America's disastrous war on drugs, the
Obama administration appears to be moving in the right direction --
albeit very, very cautiously.

On the rhetorical front, all the president's men are saying the right

In his first interview since being confirmed, Obama's new drug czar,
Gil Kerlikowske, said that we need to stop looking at our drug problem
as a war. "Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war
on drugs" or a 'war on product,'" he told the Wall Street Journal,
"people see war as a war on them. We're not at war with people in this

He also said that it was time to focus more on treatment and less on

Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the
federal government would no longer raid and prosecute distributors of
medical marijuana who operate in accordance with state law in the 13
states where voters have made it legal.

Holder has also said that his department intends to eliminate the
outrageous and prejudicial sentencing disparity between crack and
powder cocaine.

And while on the campaign trail, President Obama called for repealing
the ban on federal funding for anti-AIDS programs that supply clean
needles to drug users.

All positive signs that we are ready to move beyond our failed war on

But when it comes to putting its rhetoric into action, the Obama
administration has faltered.

Just a week after the Attorney General said there would be no more
medical marijuana raids, the DEA raided a licensed medical marijuana
dispensary in California.

Obama's '09-'10 budget proposes to continue the longstanding ban on
federal funding of needle exchange programs.

The current budget is still overwhelmingly skewed in favor of the drug
war approach -- indeed, it allocates more to drug enforcement and less
to prevention than even George Bush did.

Testifying today in front of the House Judiciary Committee, Holder, in
his opening statement, called for a working group to examine federal
cocaine sentencing policy: "Based on that review, we will determine
what sentencing reforms are appropriate, including making
recommendations to Congress on changes to crack and powder cocaine
sentencing policy." A working group? Why? As a senator, Obama
co-sponsored legislation (introduced by Joe Biden) to end the
disparity. What further review is needed?

(To be fair, during questioning, Holder said he and the president both
favored doing away with the crack/powder disparity and said that
Justice would even consider doing away with mandatory minimums
altogether. But why the initial equivocation and the use of the very
familiar needs-further-review dodge?)

So the question becomes: is the Obama administration really committed
to a fundamental shift in America's approach to drug policy or is this
about serving up a kinder, gentler drug war?

And this at a time when the tide is clearly turning. Inspired by the
massive budget crises facing many states, and the increase in drug
violence both at home and abroad -- leaders on all points across the
political spectrum appear more willing to rethink our ruinous drug

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for "an open debate" and careful
study of proposals to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana. Former
Mexican President Vicente Fox has also urged renewing the debate,
saying that he isn't convinced taxing and regulating drugs is the
answer but "why not discuss it?" Arizona Attorney General Terry
Goddard, pointing to evidence that Mexican drug cartels draw 60 to 80
percent of their revenue from pot, suggested legalization might be an
effective tool to combat Mexican drug traffickers and American gangs.

And, in a major shift in the global drug policy debate, a Latin
American commission, headed by the former presidents Fernando Cardoso
of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and Cesar Gavaria of Colombia
issued a devastating report condemning America's 40-year war on drugs.

"Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and
criminalization of consumption simply haven't worked," the former
presidents wrote in a joint op-ed. "The revision of U.S.-inspired drug
policies is urgent in light of the rising levels of violence and
corruption associated with narcotics. The alarming power of the drug
cartels is leading to a criminalization of politics and a
politicization of crime."

They called for "a paradigm shift in drug policies" that begins with
"changing the status of addicts from drug buyers in the illegal market
to patients cared for by the public health system."

And in Congress, Sen. Jim Webb has introduced legislation, with
co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, to create a blue-ribbon
commission to examine criminal justice and drug policies and how they
have led to our nation's jam-packed jails -- now filled with tens of
thousands of nonviolent drug offenders.

"With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the
world," Webb wrote in a recent Parade cover story, "there are only two
possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or
we are doing something different--and vastly counterproductive.
Obviously, the answer is the latter."

I understand that drugs continue to be a political hot potato, fueled
by what the Latin American presidents described as "prejudices and
fears that sometimes bear little relation to reality." And I can
easily picture some on the president's team advising him to keep the
issue on the backburner lest it turn into his "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

But the cost of the drug war -- both human and financial -- is far too
high to allow politics to dictate the administration's actions.
Indeed, with all the budget cutting going on, how can anyone justify
spending tens of billions of dollars a year on an unwinnable war
against our own people?

Change won't be easy. The prison-industrial complex has a deeply
vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Which is why we need to
keep the pressure on the president and his team to follow through on
their drug policy promises.

As with the regulation of Wall Street, real reform of our nation's
drugs policies won't happen without someone in the administration
making it a top priority.

The jury is still out on Kerlikowske. His law enforcement background
could make him the drug war equivalent of Tim Geithner -- too enmeshed
in the system he is tasked with overhauling.

Holder shows more promise. But he'll have to avoid the

As a reminder, I'm planning to send the Attorney General a few copies
of This Is Your Country On Drugs, a book out next month on the history
of drug use and drug policy in America by our HuffPost Congressional
correspondent Ryan Grim. In it, he argues that the goal of U.S. policy
should not be to eliminate drugs, but to prevent and treat the
addiction and other problems that come with them: "As currently
understood and implemented, drug policy attempts to isolate a
phenomenon that can't be taken in isolation. Economic policy is drug
policy. Healthcare policy is drug policy. Foreign policy, too, is drug
policy. When approached in isolation, drug policy almost always leads
to unfortunate and unintended consequences."

With three-quarters of the drug offenders clogging our state prisons
there for nonviolent offenses -- and a disproportionate number of
those young men of color -- the time has come to wage a full-scale war
on the war on drugs. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake