Drugs

Here's Why Obama's Crack Joke Isn't Funny

He cracked up a crowd with a crack joke, but US drug policy is no laughing matter.

Photo Credit: Ron Foster Sharif / Shutterstock.com

Our presidents seem to have a funny relationship with crack cocaine. George Bush the First famously held up a baggie of crack during his first prime-time address to the nation in 1989, announcing ominously that it had been seized in the park across the street from the White House. Only later, after the moment helped usher in even more draconian U.S. drug policies, did it come out that DEA agents had lured the drug dealer to the park in a Wag the Dog scenario to manipulate the American people. 
 
Now President Obama has seen fit to make a joke about crack while bidding farewell to the White House's beloved pastry chef Bill Yosses. In a speech caught on video, with Michelle shaking her head in disbelief by his side, Obama jokes, "We call Bill the "Crustmaster', because his pies. I don't know what he does, whether he puts crack in them, or..." as the laughter from the crowd cuts him off. 
 
The incident would be amusing, perhaps, if our government hadn't been so complicit in creating the crack epidemic, through decades of wrong-headed policies and, at times, through direct means.
 
Economist and Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman wrote in an open letter to Drug "Czar" Bill Bennett in 1989, "Had drugs been decriminalized 17 years ago, 'crack' would never have been invented (it was invented because the high cost of illegal drugs made it profitable to provide a cheaper version) and there would today be far fewer addicts. The lives of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of innocent victims would have been saved, and not only in the U.S. The ghettos of our major cities would not be drug-and-crime-infested no-man's lands. Fewer people would be in jails, and fewer jails would have been built. Colombia, Bolivia and Peru would not be suffering from narco-terror, and we would not be distorting our foreign policy because of narco-terror...."
 
Remember the flap about the anti-American tirade from Obama's minister Jeremiah Wright during his first presidential election campaign? Lost in the discussion was Wright's damnation of the drug war in his statement: "The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America'," Wright said in a 2003 sermon. "No, no, no, not God bless America, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human."
 
Wright was likely referring to information uncovered in Congressional hearings by John Kerry, and by the work of journalist Gary Webb, that the CIA dumped crack cocaine into Los Angeles ghettos to fund Nicaraguan contras during the 1980s.  
 
If we're talking about protecting our children from dangerous drugs, consider that a 2008 study from the Scotland Future Forum found that in the Netherlands, only 17 per cent of cannabis sellers were also selling drugs such as crack, cocaine and heroin, while in San Francisco, more than 50 per cent were. Decriminalizing marijuana, something the US government has staunchly resisted, would sever any "gateway" connection from marijuana to disastrous drugs like crack. 
 
Meanwhile we’re supposed to be grateful that after years and years of diligent work by groups like FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums),  we finally have begun to address the outrageous sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, a substance our jovial president enjoyed in his youth, along with marijuana. 
 
If we want a serious, progressive drug policy from our president the next time around, we may be looking at the wrong democratic woman. Just before the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination last November, Caroline Kennedy flew to Japan to take up her post as Ambassador to that county. Earlier that year, she served on a jury that acquitted a man for selling crack to an undercover police officer.  No joke. 

Ellen Komp is a Berkeley-based activist and author writing about drug war issues. She is deputy director of California NORML. 

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