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'This Debate Will No Longer be Suppressed': Legalizing Drugs Breaks Into the Mainstream

Latin American leaders are increasingly speaking out against prohibition. And public opinion in America, especially when it comes to legalizing pot, is shifting very rapidly.

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AMY GOODMAN: Ethan Nadelmann, I want to play for you comments Barack Obama made about the war on drugs. This was in 2004, four years before he became president.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: In terms of legalization of drugs, I think that the battle—the war on drugs has been an utter failure. And I think that we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws. But I’m not somebody—but I’m not somebody who believes in legalization of marijuana. What I do believe is, is that we need to rethink how we are operating in the drug wars, and I think that currently we are not doing a good job.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama in 2004 when he wasn’t president. Ethan Nadelmann, where has he gone since then?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, I’ll tell you, Amy, when he first came in, I was pleasantly surprised. Obama made three commitments to drug policy reform when he was running for president in 2008. He said that he would roll back these racially unjust crack powder, you know, cocaine penalties, the mandatory minimum drug laws, and he did that—not entirely, but he did it as much as could be done. Secondly, he said that he would approve federal funding for needle exchange programs to reduce HIV/AIDS, and he supported efforts in Congress to successfully do that. And the third thing he said was that the federal government would not interfere in those states where state governments had legalized medical marijuana and were responsibly regulating that. And for the first 18 months, he, by and large, made good on that policy.

But I have to tell you, for the last 18 months, the last two years, his policies have been more or less indistinguishable from his predecessors. Congress, with the Republicans taking over in the House, just reinstituted the ban on federal funding for needle exchange. And on the medical marijuana thing, you know, it’s a little—it’s not just the raids and raiding different dispensaries around the country, because you’re never quite sure whether those dispensaries are operating fully legit or not. But when the Justice Department and when U.S. attorneys are sending letters to governors and state legislators and attorney generals, and they’re threatening state officials to say that if you start to regulate this and control it in a responsible manner, that’s going to be grounds for federal authorities to come and arrest you, and they’re scaring people like Governor Gregoire in Washington or Chafee in Rhode Island or the Delaware governor, I mean, that play, that sort of heavy-handed federal cracking down on state government and those threats, that is totally inconsistent with what the President promised. There’s no legitimate basis for his doing that. And that’s the point where the reform community around this issue is really focusing right now.

AMY GOODMAN: So why is he doing this, Ethan?

ETHAN NADELMANN: I think that every president is scared of touching the drug issue, and they see it as the third rail of American politics, and they don’t want it coming up in election season. And mind you, if his opponent is either Romney or Santorum, those guys will be even worse on drug policy than Obama has been. I mean, so it’s not as if there’s a challenge coming from the other side. With Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican, or Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, who tried to run for president in the Republican primaries, that argument has got some traction among younger independent or Republican voters, but it’s not the major thread in the Republican Party.

But I think the other problem is that when he’s running for office, he’s encountering people, whether they’re, you know, wealthy Democratic donors or whether they’re just people out in the street or in the community, who are pushing him on this issue, are saying, "Legalize medical marijuana. Legalize marijuana. Stop locking up so many people." He’s hearing that, and he’s responding to it. Then he goes into the federal government, and most of what you’re hearing within the federal government at that level comes from federal law enforcement. He’s hearing federal prosecutors and DEA, and their job is one thing: it’s to enforce federal law. And if the fact that the state law has made medical marijuana legal, but it’s still illegal under federal law, well, damn it, they’re going to enforce federal law. So, what happened initially was the Justice Department was holding back on that a bit. But at this point, they’ve kind of let go. Some of the U.S. attorneys have a lot of latitude in what they want to do. And I think the White House has just simply failed to show the leadership it needs to show in this area over the last year and a half.