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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.

President Obama faces a heap of crises: a major economic recession, crumbling national infrastructure, and ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Buried in that heap is another war, one less present in public discourse but no less toxic: the drug war. The concentrated battleground of the drug war has been on domestic soil, with America’s so-called interdiction efforts spreading the fight across the world, from poppy-rich Afghanistan to the coca-nurturing Andes to the most brutal battlefield of them all, Mexico, which saw more than 5,600 drug-related murders last year, including several that involved publicly displayed decapitations

With the Obama administration, many see an unprecedented opportunity for meaningful criminal justice/drug war reform. Much of that hope stems from Obama’s seven-year track record as a state senator in Illinois—a state with one of the nation’s largest prison populations. In Springfield, Obama sponsored more than 100 bills on crime, corrections, treatment, re-entry, racial disparities and the death penalty that were mostly (though not exclusively) progressive in nature.

He also gained respect among younger voters for his willingness to talk candidly about his teenage drug use, and his present-day battle with nicotine addiction. During a campaign stop at Northwestern University while running for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama told a crowd of students that he supported decriminalizing marijuana (a position he no longer supports publicly). More significantly, Obama flatly stated that “the war on drugs has been an utter failure.”

“Most of what Obama has said previously on criminal justice issues has been good,” says David Borden, director of the Drug Reform Coordination Network in Washington, D.C. “If he carries some of that into office, we could see an enormous change in the direction of the drug war and sentencing policies. That said, criminal justice reform, especially when it comes to drugs, has always been the first issue the Democrats drop when it looks like they’re being called ‘soft on crime.’ “

Marc Mauer, director of the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., agrees with this cautious optimism.

“The political climate on crime issues has shifted significantly over the last 10 years or so,” says Mauer. “At the national level, there’s a modest but growing bipartisan movement for more rational policies. We see it most clearly around prison re-entry issues.”

After years of operating on the margins of political discourse, drug war and criminal justice reform movements have reached a new plateau of recognition and respect. Conservative lawmakers, law enforcement associations, health professionals and religious groups have joined the call for fiscal, legislative and social changes in our approach toward criminality. Even mainstream civil rights groups, which often shied away from directly addressing the injustices of the drug war and the class and ethnic disparities in arrest and sentencing rates, have grown more comfortable allying themselves with criminal justice reform.

Yet mainstream Democrats have continued dragging their feet—to the point of pushing the kind of punitive legislation championed by President Reagan.

“We’ve seen this for over 30 years now, that Democrats have often been reluctant or even hostile to the idea of embracing criminal justice reform,” Mauer says. “Our strategy is to continue to reach out to Republicans and conservative constituencies to develop broad support for some of these reforms. We need to give Democrats a comfort zone … a sense that they’re not being ‘too out there.’ “

The Second Chance Act, signed into law in April 2008, provided just such a comfort zone for Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike. Introduced by Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) and Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) in the House and by Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in the Senate, the act was signed into law in April 2008. It was a remarkable step forward for a country that had all but turned a blind eye to sky-high recidivism rates for decades on end. (Of nearly 752,000 people released from U.S. prisons annually, two-thirds will be re-arrested within three years.)

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