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Out of Respect for Human Decency, Obama Should End the Drug War

This is the right political moment for Obama to enact major progressive reforms in all avenues of the drug war and our justice system.

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Reframing the Debate

Officially, the government is waging the drug war to combat illicit drugs. Instead, it has turned into a war against the poor en masse , says Drug Policy Alliance Director Ethan Nadelmann. People of color, who are disproportionately poor, make up 35 percent of the national population, and yet comprise 69 percent of the national prison population.

Jack Cole, a former narcotics agent and founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), says that the frequency of undercover and outdoor buy-bust drug operations in inner-city neighborhoods may make for great arrest numbers, but they do almost nothing to put a dent in illicit drug sales—or use—because they target the poorest and lowest-level drug users and sellers.

LEAP—whose members are current and former police officers and police chiefs, federal agents, undercover operatives and prison wardens—is the first U.S. law enforcement organization to advocate for the full legalization of all drugs. It recently co-commissioned a study by Harvard University economics professor Jeffrey Miron, who studied the cost-benefit of legalizing and taxing drugs in the same manner as alcohol and tobacco. According to Miron’s analysis, released in December, tax revenues nationwide would amount to approximately $32.7 billion a year. Miron also found that, if drugs were legalized, the United States would save more than $44 billion annually in costs related to the enforcement of drug laws.

“The repeal of alcohol prohibition had a great deal to do with the fact that we were going through the Great Depression,” says Cole. “Now that we’re in the worst recession since the Great Depression, people are finally thinking about the economy when they think about the drug war. By legalizing drugs, we could go from spending $69 billion on the war on drugs each year to realizing total savings and revenue of $76.8 billion.”

 Biden's Record

While LEAP eschews the idea of intermediate steps toward drug policy reform, most other progressive criminal justice organizations and think tanks are reaching for middle ground by appealing to Obama’s sense of fairness and equity.

Vice President Joe Biden should be a strong asset to Obama in this regard, says the DPA’s Nadelmann. The new Congress is likely to take up a bill that Biden sponsored to eliminate the large federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine use enacted during the Reagan years. (It takes five grams of crack cocaine to trigger an automatic five-year federal prison sentence, whereas it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to result in the same mandatory minimum.)

Biden has a favorable reputation on criminal justice issues and racial inequities while still remaining a consistent ally to law enforcement, says Nadelmann, which makes him all the more influential with more reluctant members of Congress.

But Biden’s track record is mixed. Early in his career, he was a supporter of punitive, drug war-related legislation. More recently, he touted the RAVE Act—which held club owners and organizers of music gatherings responsible for drug use by participants. When it failed to pass, Biden attached it as a rider to the law enforcement-supported Amber Alert bill (a national alert system to help locate missing children), which Bush signed into law in 2003.

Propaganda Machine

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to significant drug policy reform will come from the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and its director, the so-called Drug Czar.

John Walters, the Bush administration’s drug czar, continued to put most federal funding dollars into law enforcement and interdiction efforts, blithely touting record-high drug arrest numbers as a sign of progress, even as independent surveys indicate rising levels of substance use and abuse among American teens.

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