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Will Obama End the War on Drugs?

Is Obama really committed to a fundamental shift in America's approach to drug policy or is this about serving up a kinder, gentler drug war?

When it comes to addressing America's disastrous war on drugs, the Obama administration appears to be moving in the right direction -- albeit very, very cautiously.

On the rhetorical front, all the president's men are saying the right things.

In his first interview since being confirmed, Obama's new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, said that we need to stop looking at our drug problem as a war. "Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs" or a 'war on product,'" he told the Wall Street Journal, "people see war as a war on them. We're not at war with people in this country."

He also said that it was time to focus more on treatment and less on incarceration.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal government would no longer raid and prosecute distributors of medical marijuana who operate in accordance with state law in the 13 states where voters have made it legal.

Holder has also said that his department intends to eliminate the outrageous and prejudicial sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

And while on the campaign trail, President Obama called for repealing the ban on federal funding for anti-AIDS programs that supply clean needles to drug users.

All positive signs that we are ready to move beyond our failed war on drugs.

But when it comes to putting its rhetoric into action, the Obama administration has faltered.

Just a week after the Attorney General said there would be no more medical marijuana raids, the DEA raided a licensed medical marijuana dispensary in California.

Obama's '09-'10 budget proposes to continue the longstanding ban on federal funding of needle exchange programs.

The current budget is still overwhelmingly skewed in favor of the drug war approach -- indeed, it allocates more to drug enforcement and less to prevention than even George Bush did.

Testifying today in front of the House Judiciary Committee, Holder, in his opening statement, called for a working group to examine federal cocaine sentencing policy: "Based on that review, we will determine what sentencing reforms are appropriate, including making recommendations to Congress on changes to crack and powder cocaine sentencing policy." A working group? Why? As a senator, Obama co-sponsored legislation (introduced by Joe Biden) to end the disparity. What further review is needed?

(To be fair, during questioning, Holder said he and the president both favored doing away with the crack/powder disparity and said that Justice would even consider doing away with mandatory minimums altogether. But why the initial equivocation and the use of the very familiar needs-further-review dodge?)

So the question becomes: is the Obama administration really committed to a fundamental shift in America's approach to drug policy or is this about serving up a kinder, gentler drug war?

And this at a time when the tide is clearly turning. Inspired by the massive budget crises facing many states, and the increase in drug violence both at home and abroad -- leaders on all points across the political spectrum appear more willing to rethink our ruinous drug policies.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for "an open debate" and careful study of proposals to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox has also urged renewing the debate, saying that he isn't convinced taxing and regulating drugs is the answer but "why not discuss it?" Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, pointing to evidence that Mexican drug cartels draw 60 to 80 percent of their revenue from pot, suggested legalization might be an effective tool to combat Mexican drug traffickers and American gangs.