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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?
 
 
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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.

And, in a major shift in the global drug policy debate, a Latin American commission, headed by the former presidents Fernando Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and Cesar Gavaria of Colombia issued a devastating report condemning America's 40-year war on drugs.

"Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption simply haven't worked," the former presidents wrote in a joint op-ed. "The revision of U.S.-inspired drug policies is urgent in light of the rising levels of violence and corruption associated with narcotics. The alarming power of the drug cartels is leading to a criminalization of politics and a politicization of crime."

They called for "a paradigm shift in drug policies" that begins with "changing the status of addicts from drug buyers in the illegal market to patients cared for by the public health system."

And in Congress, Sen. Jim Webb has introduced legislation, with co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, to create a blue-ribbon commission to examine criminal justice and drug policies and how they have led to our nation's jam-packed jails -- now filled with tens of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders.

"With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world," Webb wrote in a recent Parade cover story, "there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different--and vastly counterproductive. Obviously, the answer is the latter."

I understand that drugs continue to be a political hot potato, fueled by what the Latin American presidents described as "prejudices and fears that sometimes bear little relation to reality." And I can easily picture some on the president's team advising him to keep the issue on the backburner lest it turn into his "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

But the cost of the drug war -- both human and financial -- is far too high to allow politics to dictate the administration's actions. Indeed, with all the budget cutting going on, how can anyone justify spending tens of billions of dollars a year on an unwinnable war against our own people?

Change won't be easy. The prison-industrial complex has a deeply vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Which is why we need to keep the pressure on the president and his team to follow through on their drug policy promises.

As with the regulation of Wall Street, real reform of our nation's drugs policies won't happen without someone in the administration making it a top priority.

The jury is still out on Kerlikowske. His law enforcement background could make him the drug war equivalent of Tim Geithner -- too enmeshed in the system he is tasked with overhauling.

Holder shows more promise. But he'll have to avoid the let's-have-a-working-group-review-decisions-that-have-already-been-decided approach.

As a reminder, I'm planning to send the Attorney General a few copies of This Is Your Country On Drugs, a book out next month on the history of drug use and drug policy in America by our HuffPost Congressional correspondent Ryan Grim. In it, he argues that the goal of U.S. policy should not be to eliminate drugs, but to prevent and treat the addiction and other problems that come with them: "As currently understood and implemented, drug policy attempts to isolate a phenomenon that can't be taken in isolation. Economic policy is drug policy. Healthcare policy is drug policy. Foreign policy, too, is drug policy. When approached in isolation, drug policy almost always leads to unfortunate and unintended consequences."

With three-quarters of the drug offenders clogging our state prisons there for nonviolent offenses -- and a disproportionate number of those young men of color -- the time has come to wage a full-scale war on the war on drugs.

Find more Arianna at the Huffington Post.