For anyone who feared that the Obama administration would abandon efforts to control illegal drugs, the president’s first year in office has been on balance reassuring.
The anti-antidrug camp had high hopes that Barack Obama would end “drug prohibition.” Last year, George Soros, a leading proponent of drug legalization and perhaps the most generous financial backer of the president, seemed in a position to get the change he wanted. In fact, Obama drug czar Gil Kerlikowske made it his first order of business to tell the press he was ending “the drug war.” More significantly, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal enforcement regarding “medical marijuana” would be dialed back, which caused the number of storefront marijuana shops in Los Angeles to skyrocket.
Things are looking a little different a year later, however. Kerlikowske turned old school and proclaimed that drug legalization was not in the administration’s “vocabulary.” The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) continues to enforce marijuana laws in California (although without vocal support from Holder). And the Obama administration just released its first drug control budget requesting a fully funded, well, drug war. At the end of the Bush administration, federal drug control spending in fiscal year 2009 was $15 billion—65 percent of it devoted to border security, law enforcement, and other supply control efforts. Obama wants $15.5 billion in 2011, 64 percent for supply control—an increase of $100 million over Bush’s final year.
President Obama did not speak of the importance of drug treatment in his first State of the Union address as his predecessor had, but he requested a bit more money for it—all to the good. And he even tried to avoid adding these funds to the most unaccountable federal treatment programs.
Last year, Congress and the administration cut prevention funding 17 percent, the only significant change from 2009. This year, the administration is seeking to restore some, but not all, of that cut.
The drug-legalization zealots may be singing “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” But with the exception of the Carter administration, when some senior members of the White House staff favored legalization, every president from Richard Nixon through Barack Obama—Republican and Democrat—has sought to attack both supply and demand. It was during the Carter administration that the drug problem exploded, leading to the worst destruction from substance abuse in living memory and the enduring root of the smaller problem still with us today.
It is very important that President Obama has not listened to George Soros on drugs. Should we expect anything more? Are there any signs that the president cares about the drug problem? Will he actually show some leadership on this issue? If he wanted to, he could teach young people something. He could say that illegal drugs make people sick, and his generation did not understand this and paid a horrible price for its ignorance. Now we know better, and we should act like it. If he wanted to show real courage, he could say we know that marijuana makes people sick and that marijuana is the illegal drug causing the greatest dependency and addiction by far. He could even say it is time to stop several decades of lying to ourselves about marijuana and teaching that lie to our children.
President Obama as no other president before him could use his appeal to youth to end, almost overnight, the cultural dogma that drugs are cool. It would be easy for him to become the greatest contributor to drug abuse prevention since Nancy Reagan—and he could explain how difficult it is to stop using these substances even when you know better, as he has found with cigarettes.
Of course, none of this is likely to happen. The Obama administration has shown itself willing to spend to support antidrug programs, but it probably will not lead at home and abroad in the areas where truly historic gains are possible.
President Alvaro Uribe in Colombia has all but taken his country back from drug trafficking terrorists. One result of Uribe’s victories is that dramatically less cocaine reaches American cities. Is that not important to President Obama? The Obama administration could draw attention to this magnificent example of turning the tide against drugs and terror and explain how it happened—a great drug war victory led by Colombia’s president and supported by both the Clinton and the Bush administrations. If similar efforts are led, adapted, and sustained in Mexico and Afghanistan, the damage caused by cocaine, heroin, and marijuana in the United States and globally can be dramatically reduced. The changes would be profound. Does President Obama see this? Thus far, there is no evidence he thinks about it at all.