Obama's Biden Pick Signals 'More of the Same' Stupid Drug Policies

Election '08

Voters who hoped that Barack Obama's call for "change" would include revamping U.S. drug policy are finding themselves with reasons to be skeptical.

First there was Obama's flip-flop-flip-flop on the subject of decriminalizing marijuana. Speaking at Northwestern University in January 2004, Obama called America's so-called "war on drugs" an "utter failure," and recommended, "(W)e need to rethink and decriminalize our (nation's) marijuana laws." (Obama's candid remarks, though out of step politically, echo public sentiment. Nearly 3 out of 4 Americans endorsed the policy in a 2002 CNN/Time Magazine poll, and 12 state legislatures have already enacted versions of pot decriminalization -- replacing criminal penalties with fine-only sanctions.)

Nevertheless, Obama reversed his pro-pot position during a televised November 2007 MSNBC debate, raising his hand to indicate his opposition to the policy. Following the debate, a spokesman for Obama claimed that the candidate had misunderstood the moderator's question and declared that Obama had, in fact, "always" supported decriminalization. Hours later, however, when presented with video footage of Obama's 2004 statements, the campaign reversed course once again, stating to the Washington Times that the Democratic nominee opposed decriminalizing weed.

Since being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama has voiced almost no criticism regarding America's punitive drug policies (despite his previous "utter failure" evaluation). As senator, Obama has championed popular anti-drug legislation like the "Combat Meth Act" and has lobbied in favor of increased funding for drug courts and U.S. drug interdiction efforts south of the border.

Nevertheless, many progressives believe -- perhaps rightly -- that Obama's prior admissions of illicit drug use (which the candidate now describes, without further elaboration, as a "mistake"), coupled with his apparent nonideological, holistic approach to public policy, indicates a willingness to move American drug policy away from the moralist, "do drugs, do time" attitudes associated with the Bush administration. If so, then the sudden pairing with Democrat drug war hawk Joe Biden becomes that much more distressing.

During his 35 years in Congress, political observers note that no Democrat has sponsored "more damaging drug war legislation" than Joe Biden. Biden led the charge in the Senate for passage of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which -- among its numerous notorious provisions -- re-established mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes, expanded the use of federal asset forfeiture laws, and established the racially biased 100-to-1 sentencing disparity for the possession of crack versus powder cocaine. (During the mid-'80s, it was hardly unusual for "liberals" such as Biden to endorse punitive drug policies, which at the time enjoyed virtually unanimous support from Congress.) Biden recently offered a mea culpa regarding his former support for the disproportionate sentencing provision, rationalizing, "Our intentions were good, but much of our information was bad."

Biden was also a key architect of the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which enacted mandatory sentences for minor crack cocaine possession (five years in prison for possession of more than 5 grams), redefined low-level drug mules as drug "conspirators" (allowing these defendants to face the same penalties as drug kingpins), instituted random workplace drug testing programs for public employees, and established the multibillion-dollar anti-drug propaganda wing of the White House known as the Office of National Drug Control Policy (the federal agency responsible for creating the television ads that claimed that pot smoking sponsors international terrorism -- or at least makes you pregnant). The executive director of the ONDCP, dubbed by Biden as America's "drug czar," was eventually elevated in 1993 to that of a presidential Cabinet position -- arguably the only U.S. Cabinet position that, by law, is mandated to lie to the American public.

More than three decades in Congress have done little to quench Biden's drug war lust. In 2001, Delaware's senior senator grilled then drug czar appointee -- now acting drug czar lunatic -- John Walters for several hours over concerns that he might not be tough enough to spearhead America's drug war. Biden also sponsored federal anti-paraphernalia legislation forbidding the interstate sale of glass pipes, bongs and rolling papers. (In 2003, Hollywood actor and comedian Tommy Chong was sentenced to nine months in federal prison for violating the statute. Nevertheless, in an August interview on the "Dr. Drew" syndicated radio show, Chong admitted that he supports the Obama-Biden ticket -- a decision that, if nothing else, illustrates the view among many reformers that regardless of how bad the Dems might be on the drug issue, a McCain-Palin administration would undoubtedly be worse.)

More recently, Biden authored the so-called RAVE Act (aka the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act) -- clandestinely enacted into law in 2003 as a rider to federal "Amber Alert" legislation -- which permits federal law enforcement to prosecute business owners and event organizers who hold concerts where illicit drug use takes place. The congressman was also instrumental in the passage of the domestic COPS program, which sought to add some 100,000 new law enforcement officers to the state and federal payrolls, as well as expend funding for the Department of Justice, the FBI and the DEA.

Biden is also a staunch supporter of U.S. anti-drug efforts abroad, such as Plan Columbia and Plan Afghanistan, and has even espoused for the use of mycoherbicides such as Fusarium oxysporum -- a genetically engineered fungal plant killer -- in illicit crop eradication efforts. (Fortunately for the planet, more rational minds -- at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, of all places -- nixed the idea, deciding that the deliberate spread of such toxic pathogens would be unsafe for the environment.)

In recent months, Biden has called for a nationwide smoking ban, demanded stricter penalties for those who violate "drug free school zone" laws, and spoken out against efforts to lower the national drinking age to 18. (On the flip side, Biden -- like his running mate -- has expressed verbal support for ending the federal prosecution of state-authorized medical marijuana patients and providers, though both candidates continue to express skepticism regarding the drug's therapeutic use.) Finally, this past July, Biden introduced one of the more laughable pieces of anti-drug legislation in congressional history: Senate Bill 3351, which seeks to crack down on drug traffickers who captain unregistered submarines in international waters. Fortunately, unlike many of his previous efforts, SB3351 lacks the ability to put tens of thousands of Americans -- particularly those of color -- in prison.

So should progressives cite Obama's tapping of Biden as reason to abandon all hope for drug law reform? Not necessarily, though the notable absence of the subject at the Democratic National Convention will likely give some folks -- this author included -- yet another reason to be cynical.

Bottom line: No administration since the Carter administration has proactively taken steps to liberalize federal drug penalties, and there's little indication that Obama and Biden will possess either the desire or the political will to buck this long-running trend.

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