by Katrina vanden Heuvel
November 20, 2012
With his final election behind him, and the final attack ads safely off the
air, President Obama now returns to his regularly scheduled programming -
Yet, the chatter about his second term agenda,
from deficit reduction to immigration reform, ignores one critical issue:
ending our nation’s inhumane, irrational - and ineffective - war on drugs
launch in 1971, when President Nixon successfully branded drug addicts
as criminals, the war on drugs has resulted in 45 million arrests and
destroyed countless families.
The result of this trillion dollar
crusade? Americans aren’t drug free - we’re just
the world’s most incarcerated population.
We make China look like
Woodstock. We’re also, according to the old definition, insane; despite
overwhelming evidence of its failure, our elected officials steadfastly
refuse to change course.
But on November 6, citizens
Washington became the first to approve ballot
initiatives legalizing the recreational use of
marijuana. Their success illustrates growing tolerance
and, indeed, support for a smarter approach that could
change, and even save, countless lives.
Now, the question is how the
federal government will respond to these new state laws, since they
directly conflict with existing federal restrictions on drugs.
Recreational use might be legal in the eyes of Colorado and Washington,
but Uncle Sam can still put the boot down.
President Obama has a choice. He could
direct the Department of Justice (DOJ) to crack down and prevent the two
states from moving forward. Or he could finally, fully embrace sensible
There are reasons to be encouraged. During
the 2008 campaign, Obama pledged to
leave state medical marijuana laws alone. He seemed to sympathize
African American and
Latino communities, disproportionate casualties of the drug war.
Surely, Obama knew that one chance run-in between his youthful “choom
gang” and the police years ago would have deprived him of the office
he holds today.
In October 2009,
the DOJ declared that the federal government would not prosecute
individuals, including distributors and cultivators, found in possession
of marijuana, as long as they were complying with state medical
The following year, President Obama signed
the Fair Sentencing Act, which dropped the five-year mandatory
minimum sentencing for simple possession of crack cocaine. The law also
reduced the unjust disparity in federal sentencing for crack and powder
But in October 2011, the DOJ
began large-scale raids on medical marijuana cultivators and
distributors, state law be damned. Federal authorities have since
raided and shut down 600 dispensaries in California alone. A fine
use of law enforcement resources in these austere times.
Enough is enough. The president should
instruct the DOJ to de-prioritize marijuana-related cases in states that
allow for medical marijuana, and to allow Colorado and Washington to
move ahead with implementation of their new laws. He should ensure that
federal appointees dealing with the issue, including U.S. Attorneys, are
And he should take the fight to Congress, where
members of both parties might be able to find common ground. Obama can lead
across party lines by seeking out libertarian members of the GOP to join him
in crafting better drug policies.
In fact, in May, Democratic Reps. Sam Farr
(Calif.) and Maurice Hinchey (N.Y.) joined with Republican Dana Rohrabacher
(Calif.) on a
bill that would have cut federal funding for the Justice Department’s
And Senator Rand Paul recently indicated he might work with
Democrat Pat Leahy to
eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana possession.
Meanwhile, if left free of federal intrusion,
Colorado and Washington might become a model for legalizing and taxing
If successful, the experiment could yield
millions in tax revenues and drastically decrease incarceration rates, while
giving members of Congress more incentive to change federal law. It could
even help improve U.S. relations with Latin America, and help demilitarize
our hemispheric policies with our closest neighbors, particularly Mexico.
If Congress fails and, four
years from now, a new president instructs the DOJ to
crack down again, any such reforms would be at risk. But
if Colorado and Washington show positive results, the
public, which already believes
the drug war has failed, might support wider
implementation, and perhaps force a federal solution.
To be sure, Colorado and Washington are not
the final battlefields of the war on drugs.
Marijuana is not the sole drug behind our
astounding incarceration rate for nonviolent drug-related crimes. We’re
a long way from a just system that addresses drug use with treatment
rather than punishment. Still, we might be one step closer to ending our
failed attempt at marijuana prohibition, much as, in 1933, public
opinion finally brought an end to alcohol prohibition.
In the first proclamation of Thanksgiving,
acknowledged the many gifts bestowed by a god who,
“while dealing with us in anger for our
sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
This holiday, as President Obama pardons the
traditional turkey, let’s hope he also considers the millions of
Americans trapped in a cruel, senseless system.
May he heed Lincoln’s words and offer them
forgiveness and, above all, hope.