Looks like it's going to be Obama vs. McCain in the general election. One has freely admitted former drug use. The other's wife is a recovering addict. Back when Bill Clinton was running for office, his non-inhaled pot smoke caused an uproar. This time the controversy surrounding Barack Obama is that he may not have done as many drugs as he seemed to indicate in his autobiography. Does this mean the change voters have been clamoring for may extend to drug policy?
Drug Policy and Past Presidents
I was born in 1973, just a couple years after Richard Nixon kicked off his war on drugs. I grew up in South Florida where the uber-wealthy did lines on their yachts with impunity, while crack houses in Liberty City were raided on the five o'clock news for everyone to see the dark face of the drug problem. In those years, the drug war was the political issue. Anyone who needed a bogeyman, from Hollywood to the Whitehouse, just pulled out the archetypal evil drug dealer.
Every successive president tried to outdo the last in a violent, futile hypocrisy-fest. Ronald Reagan escalated the drug war, while at the same time illegally supporting the Contras in Nicaragua (many of whom were, according to congressional testimony, known to be involved in the drug trade). Then there was his successor, George Bush, with his now debunked claim about buying crack in front of the Whitehouse. And Bill Clinton who went out of his way to prove how tough on crime (ie. not a bleeding heart liberal) he was by presiding over an administration which saw the U.S. prison population grow by leaps and bounds - in large part due to drug laws.
Obama and McCain on Foreign Drug Policy
The basic tenets of U.S. foreign policy related to drugs have been:
- Push to ensure other countries make illegal the substances we want illegal
- Push for harsh penalties for violating drug laws
- Provide money, weapons, and logistical support for police and (more often) military
- Eliminate the "source" of drugs using crop eradication
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that either a McCain or Obama presidency would change our foreign policy regarding drugs. Neither have challenged the basic tenets of our policy. Both McCain and Obama have come out in support of the Merida Initiative (increasing counter-narcotic support to the Mexican government). They have also supported Plan Colombia.
McCain, for his part, said in a speech to The Florida Association of Broadcasters that "our security priority in this hemisphere is to ensure that terrorists, their enablers and their business partners, including narcotraffickers, have nowhere to hide." Obama, when questioned at a foreign policy event I attended about how to handle opium growing in Afghanistan, said that we need to look at bringing in agricultural experts. While his looking at the root of the problem (the need to make a living) and not resorting to a knee-jerk military response is laudable, crop substitution programs have been tried and failed.
Obama and McCain on Domestic Drug Policy
On the domestic front, things are somewhat more hopeful. There seems to finally be some recognition that our policies have failed. The two main areas of movement are:
- Medical Marijuana and Marijuana Decriminalization
- Alternatives to Incarceration of Drug Offenders
Both McCain and Obama have advocated alternatives to prison for first time users. In fact, the only place you will see drug issues listed on Obama's website is under the civil rights section. There he advocates rehabilitation through ex-offender programs (including substance abuse treatment), elimination of sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, and the expanded use of drug courts (which even the U.S. Department of Justice admits reduces recidivism).
Questions for Obama and McCain
While there appears to be some improvement on domestic policy, we still have a long way to go. Here are a few questions about drug policy I would like to see asked of the candidates in a debate:
- Would you agree that a law is a rule we as a society agree to live by? If nearly half the population is breaking a law, wouldn't a reasonable conclusion be that the law may not be appropriate or just? In 2005, the Department of Justice reported that 46%, or nearly half, of all adults surveyed had used illicit drugs in their lifetime. Would you send half the population to prison?
- Senator Obama, you have in the past said that you supported marijuana decriminalization. Recently, your campaign stated that this was a misunderstanding of the term decriminalization - which means to remove criminal penalties. Are we to take it that you support criminal penalties, including jail time, for possession of small amounts of marijuana. If so, please explain why, aside from its current illegality, it is a good idea to send people to prison for marijuana possession.
- Both of you have supported continuing Plan Colombia and ratcheting up support for similar programs in Mexico. Does this include support for eradication programs, which have been shown to have disastrous effects on food production, caused environmental destruction, had negative health effects on populations, and caused potentially explosive border disputes with neighboring countries? And does it take into consideration the fact that it was a supposedly successful eradication campaign in Mexico in the 1970s that actually pushed drug production into Colombia in the first place - the well documented balloon effect.
- If a business has been cheated or stolen from, they generally have options as to how to address that problem. They can call the police. They can sue in civil court. They can go to the newspapers. If a drug business has a similar problem they have only one option, violence. Wouldn't it follow, that by opening up other options, by legalizing drugs, we might be able to curb the violence plaguing places like Mexico and Colombia? Senator Obama, in a recent speech to the Cuban American National Foundation you criticized sticking to "tired blueprints on drugs and trade, on democracy and development." Aren't our current tactics in the drug war the most tired blueprints of them all?