If Obama Is Pro-Science and Honest, He’ll Put the Kibosh on the Drug War
By Alexander Zaitchik, Alternet
One of the many things that made Barack Obama such a refreshing candidate was his frank and unapologetic admission of drug use. True, Anderson Cooper extracted curt “yeses” from some 2004 Democratic candidates when he asked them point-blank if they had ever smoked pot. But Obama has written openly and without prompting about his experiences, not only with marijuana, but cocaine, a “hard” drug. On the campaign trail he even joked about inhaling deeply — “that was the point,” he said more than once. Unlike George W. Bush, Obama didn’t hide behind evasive murmurs about “irresponsible behavior,” or turn his drug experiences into a setup for some maudlin born-again conversion story.
As recounted in his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama was a normal American kid. Which is to say he used drugs, had fun and survived. The book doesn’t romanticize the president-elect’s days of smoking pot and snorting “a little blow when [he] could afford it,” but it’s easy to take what details he provides and imagine him with his basketball buddies on some Oahu beach blazing bowls of Maui Wowie, alternately laughing until his guts hurt and sitting in quiet wonder before a magnificent pink-and-yellow Pacific sunset. Obama has even written about his pursuit of heroin’s moon-shot high. As a teenager, he went so far as to ask a junkie friend for an assisted first hit, but recoiled when presented in a deli freezer with the surgical tools of the mainliner’s trade: rubber tubing and second-hand syringe.
Partly because Obama was so reasonable and matter-of-fact about his own All-American experiences getting high, drug-policy reformers were among those most excited by his candidacy. If any aspect of America needs change, it is the country’s prohibitionist and punitive approach to drugs and drug use. Obama, it seemed, was the right politician to take an executive hammer to the cracked marble pillars of America’s disastrous war on drugs. Throughout the primaries and general election, Obama gently encouraged these hopes by advocating commonsense drug-policy reforms. He criticized federal paramilitary raids on state-sanctioned greenhouses and called for ending racist discrepancies in cocaine sentencing laws. (As a little-mentioned footnote to the first of these positions, Obama’s mother died from cancer five years before the Hawaii legislature legalized medical marijuana.)
Nobody expected Obama to tap Tommy Chong to run the Office of National Drug Control Policy. But maybe, just maybe, Obama would have the political courage to publicly acknowledge what an emerging majority of Americans now grasps: that the war on drugs is a failure, that it is unjust, and that it is an epic waste of law-enforcement time and resources.
Still a month before inauguration, the hopes of drug-policy-reform advocates have had their wings clipped several times, beginning with the announcement of the Democratic ticket.
“The pick of Joe Biden was my first sign of digestive tumult,” says Keith Stroup, founder and legal advisor of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “Rather than oppose the Reagan-inspired War on Some Drugs, Biden became an enthusiastic supporter and legislative booster. He was at the center of creating the ONDCP [in 1988], mandatory minimum sentencing, civil forfeiture laws, the Rave Act, funding for DARE in public schools and the ad campaigns for the Partnership for a Drug Free America.”
NORML board member Dominic Holden says: “Biden is the drug war embodied.”
The selection of the emblematic Democratic drug warrior of the 1980s was followed by the selection of his 1990s counterpart, Rahm Emanuel. As President Bill Clinton’s liaison with the ONDCP, the incoming chief of staff advised on and defended that administration’s tough-on-crime punitive approach to drugs and its cowardly opposition to medical-marijuana initiatives and needle-exchange programs. While Clinton has since expressed regret over some of these positions, the tightly wound Emanuel has not.
Obama’s pick for attorney general, meanwhile, has a mixed record on drug policy reform that will hopefully be clarified during the expected Senate dogfight over his nomination. But the record is not encouraging. As D.C. attorney general in the 1990s, Eric Holder supported mandatory sentences of 18 months to six years for selling a range of drugs that included marijuana. He is also on record supporting the “broken windows” theory of neighborhood policing most closely associated with Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s NYPD and the conservative Manhattan Institute. Holder’s iron-fist drug politics find a public health counterpart in the confused mind of Obama’s Transition Team point man on the ONDCP, Don Vereen, who as recently as November explained his opposition to medical marijuana by saying, “[It] sends the wrong message to children.”