President Obama uttered the words in a recent You Tube Townhall that drug reform advocates have long wanted to hear from a president. His blunt comment that "drug legalization is a legitimate topic for debate" came in response to a question from a former law enforcement officer. The response was in stark contrast to the much criticized response he gave in an interview two years ago when in a similar online session he was asked whether he thought legalizing marijuana would help the economy. Obama treated the question as a joke, flatly dismissed any such notion that legalization would have any impact on the economy, and quickly moved on.
In the two years since then, the Obama administration has continued the top heavy funding for prosecution and incarceration of drug offenders over treatment and prevention programs. Attorney General Eric Holder has repeatedly warned that the federal government will continue to aggressively prosecute drug offenders no matter whether state laws or voter initiatives have softened or even voted to legalize the use of marijuana.
Last May, White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske sent a similar blurred message on the administration's drug policy. He touted the importance of treating drug use as a public health rather than a criminal problem. There was a small increase in the amount of funds for treatment and prevention program. But the czar gave no indication that a major reshift in the administration's drug spending priorities was in the offing. A few months later, Kevin Sabet, special adviser for policy at the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, reaffirmed that the administration would not prosecute those who legitimately used medical marijuana in the states that allowed its use. Sabet warned, though, that the Justice Department would vigorously prosecute those that abused the law as a cover to legalize its use which the Obama administration firmly opposed. The administration was also concerned that medical marijuana use could be a front for drug traffickers.
But in the past two years, the drug war has taken some sharp turns. More state legislators, including a fair number of GOP state legislators, have branded the drug enforcement policy as failed, flawed, and cost ineffective. More law enforcement officials, including the group, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, have called for repeal of the drug laws. They contend that the sole focus on prosecution and prisons has bloated state budgets, destabilized families, and most importantly put the lives of more law enforcement officers in danger from the incessant state and federal drug raids and sweeps. The mild sea change in legislative and political opinion on drug law reform was in evidence when Congress at President Obama's urging last year eliminated the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine. That mild shift in how Congress looked at the drug law enforcement came in the wake of several other drug policy reforms since Obama took office. Obama signed a measure repealing a two-decade old ban on the use of federal money for needle-exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV. In California, voters came closer than ever to passing an initiative that legalized marijuana use.
Obama's thoughtful response to the drug legalization question was in effect a return to a position that he openly stated during the 2008 presidential primaries. Then he was the only top presidential contender who supported eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana, and that included making marijuana legal for medical uses. This got relatively little media attention. But it was the first hint that if he was elected he would be willing to rethink how the drug war was being waged. His reiteration of that view in the You Tube Townhall was tacit recognition that the nation's policy has been a colossal failure. The numbers tell just how much of a staggering drain the drug war has been on state and federal budgets while hitting a hammer blow at the economy. Taxpayers shell out nearly $70 billion annually on corrections and incarceration. In 2010, there were more than 2 million Americans warehoused in state and federal prisons. One out of four of them were jailed for drug offenses. Studies show that they earn roughly 40 percent less than they did before being jailed. In other words, drug incarceration has not just strained the federal and state budgets at a time when states and the feds are preaching austerity it have also drained the economy.
President Obama will unveil his budget for the coming year on February 13. Drug reformers will watch closely to see if there is a shift in the balance in his budget from the standard top heavy amounts that go to criminal prosecution and prisons to more funds to expand treatment and prevention programs. This will be a sign as to just how serious the president is about making the nation's drug policy worth the legitimate debate he spoke of.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts national Capitol Hill broadcast radio talk show on KTYM Radio Los Angeles and WFAX Radio Washington D.C. streamed on ktym.com and wfax.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com
Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson