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If Obama Is Pro-Science and Honest, He'll Put the Kibosh on the Drug War

Obama was frank about his own drug use, so why isn't he more honest about what a disaster war on drugs has been?

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Obama's pick for attorney general, meanwhile, has a mixed record on drug policy reform that will hopefully be clarified during the expected Senate dogfight over his nomination. But the record is not encouraging. As D.C. attorney general in the 1990s, Eric Holder supported mandatory sentences of 18 months to six years for selling a range of drugs that included marijuana. He is also on record supporting the "broken windows" theory of neighborhood policing most closely associated with Mayor Rudy Giuliani's NYPD and the conservative Manhattan Institute. Holder's iron-fist drug politics find a public health counterpart in the confused mind of Obama's Transition Team point man on the ONDCP, Don Vereen, who as recently as November explained his opposition to medical marijuana by saying, "[It] sends the wrong message to children."

Which takes us to the drug czar throne. Here the rumors are worse than most would have DARE'd imagine. The Obama transition team has done nothing to dispel talk that Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., is a leading candidate to run ONDCP or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In either position, Ramstad's nomination would make a joke of Obama's pledge that his policy decisions will be made "based on facts," not ideology and caveman politics. Earlier this month, hundreds of leading substance-abuse health professionals signed a letter to Obama expressing concern over Ramstad's opposition to evidence-based HIV/AIDS-reduction practices such as methadone and needle-exchange programs, as well as his support for arresting medical marijuana patients and failure to co-sponsor any of the three bills put forward by the last Congress to eliminate the cocaine-sentencing disparity. But it gets worse. As Maia Szalavitz first reported on The Huffington Post, Ramstad funneled almost a quarter of a million dollars in federal money to an abusive church-run addiction program that sees drug addiction not as a health issue requiring medication and counseling, but as a "sin" that needs cleansing through the acceptance of Jesus Christ as lord and savior. Ramstad is such a Bush-league freak show that concern over his possible nomination has spilled beyond the small world of drug-policy-reform professionals. Last week, the Boston Globe editorialized strongly against his candidacy.

Of course, it's possible that the views of people like Holder, Emanuel, Biden and Ramstad are no longer what they were. But reformers are concerned that there's no way of knowing. "Because they haven't spoken on these issues in so long, we have to go back to what they said in the '90s," says Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML. "We hope they have evolved, or that at least Obama doesn't listen to them if they haven't. After all, the president sets the policy."

Sound familiar?

Regardless of where Obama's appointees stand and how much, if any, political capital he is willing to spend on drug-policy reform, the need to turn his campaign slogan into reality has never been greater.  Last week, the Justice Department released numbers showing that 1 in every 100 Americans is now in prison, and 1 in every 31 is either behind bars, on parole or on probation. For this grotesquerie we can thank the war on drugs. More than half of federal prisoners (95,000 people) are behind bars for drug-law violations -- a record. Nationally, around half a million people are in prison on nonviolent drug charges. The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that this is a tenfold increase since 1980, totaling more than the entire prison population of Western Europe.

Reform advocates are realistic about the possibilities for progress in the coming years. Everyone agrees that a radical overhaul of U.S. drug laws, including ending the prohibition of marijuana, remains years if not decades away. But the major groups have clear goals for the first administration and are guardedly optimistic about meeting them.

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