article

04.16.09

Obama's Demented Drug Policy

As he leaves on a trip to Mexico, the president looks poised to continue the same ruinous drug policies and the same failing tactics in the war on drugs.

When Barack Obama visits Mexico today, the drug war, and the violence it has spawned south of the border, is expected to dominate the agenda. Since 2006, more than 10,000 people have been murdered in Mexico as a direct consequence of the drug trade. This bloody outbreak began when, with the blessing of and funding from the U.S. government, Mexican President Felipe Calderon ordered the Mexican military to aggressively crack down on the drug cartels. Such crackdowns often ratchet up the level of violence, as the elimination of one major drug distributor provokes those who remain to war over his territory. That’s a pattern as old and predictable as Prohibition itself, yet politicians never seem to learn.

The best solution to what’s plaguing Mexico right now is the one topic that will almost assuredly be off the table: legalizing marijuana.

Last month, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Mexico, she expressed gave concern over the escalating violence... and then heaped praise on Calderon's crackdown, promising to support it with more funding and more military hardware. Obama appears poised to say much the same thing. According to a recent preview of his trip in The Washington Post, the president is expected to promise swifter delivery of drug-war aid and increased efforts by the U.S. to stop the flow of American weapons to Mexico. But the best solution to what’s plaguing Mexico right now is the one topic that will almost assuredly be off the table: legalizing marijuana. Marijuana makes up 60 to 70 percent of the Mexican drug trade. Lifting prohibitions on it in the United States would eradicate a major source of funds for the cartels.

But Obama has little patience for such talk. We saw this at the now-infamous (at least on the Internet) town-hall meeting last month, where the president was asked whether he would consider legalizing marijuana to help the ailing economy. The question was the top vote-getter on a White House Web site set up in the spirit of making the president accessible to the public. But Obama dismissed it with a one-word answer, then derided the very online community that raised half a billion dollars for his campaign as a bunch of half-baked morons.

The incident offended many former Obama activists, yet other supporters have chided those upset by his answer by pointing out that Obama has never supported marijuana legalization. That’s true. But it also misses the point. The drug-reform community rallied behind Obama’s candidacy because in the past he has taken thoughtful, nuanced positions on the issue. Consider this video, from 2004:

Video screenshot

Obama's curt response last month was a striking departure from that video. It didn't take long for him to go from a thoughtful drug-war critic to a typical Beltway drug warrior.

To answer the question Obama batted away, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that legalizing all drugs would produce a net boon of $77 billion per year to government alone, much of it in savings on enforcement and incarceration. That's not accounting for the money from the sale of drugs that, under a legalized system, would go to the above-ground economy instead of to cartels and crime syndicates. Miron estimated in a 2005 study that if we were to only legalize marijuana, the savings to government would be $10 to 14 billion, a figure endorsed by 530 other economists. Obama's callous dismissal of the question—as if serious people didn't even require an explanation—wasn't warranted.

Another instance in which the Obama team has moved away from a fresh, realistic consideration of drug policy involves a federal program called the Byrne Grant, which ties federal funding for local police departments directly to drug arrests. During the campaign, both Obama and running mate Joe Biden pushed to revitalize this damaging program, which warps local police's priorities, encouraging them to jack up arrest statistics by prowling for low-level offenders. In several areas, unaccountable, militaristic multi-jurisdictional drug task forces have wreaked havoc on minority and low-income communities. Byrne Grant task forces were responsible for the wrongful arrest of dozens of black residents of Tulia, Texas, in 1999, as well as a similar calamity a year later in Hearne, Texas (which is the inspiration for the upcoming movie, American Violet).

Then there’s Afghanistan. Obama's new plan for the country is not only foolish, it may well undermine U.S. national security. The Associated Press  reported last month that a major focus of Obama's plan "will be modeled after the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's campaign against drug cartels in South America." The problem is that the federal government's anti-drug efforts in South America have failed. Despite America spending $6 billion on anti-drug efforts in Colombia since 2000, cocaine production increased 27 percent over that period. The situation on the continent is so bad that the three previous presidents of Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia recently wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for an end to the U.S.-led drug war. Now Obama wants to use the same methods in Afghanistan.

There's already evidence that our existing anti-drug efforts there are undermining efforts to eradicate the Taliban, which protects the poppy growers, then taxes them to fund their insurgency. As former BBC correspondent Misha Glenny, author of a book on world crime syndicates, wrote last year in The Washington Post, "The Taliban is becoming richer and stronger by the day. ... The 'war on drugs' is defeating the 'war on terror.'"

Defenders of Obama's town-hall response say advocating legalization—even for marijuana alone—is politically foolish. Certainly Clinton Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders paid a price for merely suggesting the idea merited study. But just how culturally radical could legalization be if it's supported by both The National Review and the late Milton Friedman?

What’s more, the political climate on the drug war has changed since the 1990s. In the last year, both The Economist and Foreign Policy magazines have run editorials in favor of drug legalization. Medical marijuana is now legal in 13 states, and public support for complete legalization of marijuana now stands in the low 40s. Last year, 63 percent of Massachusetts voters voted in favor of decriminalizing the drug. This no longer a fringe issue.

To give credit where it's due, Attorney General Eric Holder did at least vow to end the DEA raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in states that have legalized the drug for treatment. But the DEA conducted another raid in California a week after that announcement, and it is not yet clear if the Justice Department will continue to pursue existing cases, such as the outrageous prosecution of Charlie Lynch, the owner of a California medical marijuana shop who faces a 40-year sentence on federal drug charges, even though local authorities told him he was in full compliance with state law.

Obama could distinguish himself in Mexico today by taking the thoughtful, nuanced approach to the drug issue he embraced before he started to run for president. Sadly, it is more likely that he’ll endorse the same failed policies of his predecessors, which will mean more violence and carnage for Mexico, with little if any effect on the drug supply in America.

Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason magazine, and maintains a blog at TheAgitator.com.