Will Obama Declare War on the War on Drugs?

When Barack Obama picked Joe Biden to be his running mate last September, drug-policy reform activists were displeased. Prospects for revamping the Bush administration’s zero-tolerance approach, critics felt, were undermined by the veteran lawmaker from Delaware — a man who played a major role in crafting some of the country’s harshest drug legislation. Such fears have been allayed in recent weeks, though, with Obama stating his intent to shift from a punitive stance to one that focuses on minimizing health risks. In practical terms, this entails supporting needle-exchange programs, ending raids on medical-marijuana facilities, and, many hope, transforming drugs from a criminal issue into a health one.

However, as John Tierney points out in his New York Times blog, Obama’s drug policy is still very much an open question. As of now, the only insight he’s provided has been the recent appointment of Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske to Drug Czar. While some health reformers have expressed concern over the decision to appoint a cop rather than a doctor, Kerlikowske’s track record reflects prudence and reason; he has generally prioritized common-sense measures, such as community policing, over hardline ideology.

Ultimately, though, one of the main countervailing forces against relaxing drug policy isn’t an allegiance to the Rockefeller laws or the desire to project a “tough on crime” attitude — rather, it’s the escalating global violence associated with the war on drugs. In Mexico, cartel conflicts have gotten so fierce that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently proposed sending unmanned surveillance drones to help guard the border; and in Peru, the ghost of a civil war long ended has resurfaced in the guise of coca operations run by rebel group the Shining Path. In early March, Obama signed on with UN member states to extend the war on drugs another ten years, but refused to endorse a “harm reduction” clause that would have taken a significant step toward decriminalization and treatment-based alternatives. While Obama has proven willing to step back from the current Draconian approach to drug policy, he has yet to reveal how he plans to confront an issue that has too long been oversimplified.

Image: Reuters/Jim Young