Thursday, May 7, 2009

Obama is not the friend of reform we hoped he could be

Before his campaign began, Obama stated that drug abuse should be treated as a public health issue, not a criminal justice one.

Since he was elected all of his actions have belied his words. When his transition team opened as a forum to stimulate public involvement by posing questions for his administration, one question was most popular by far.

"Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and create a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?"

The answer given was extremely unsatisfying, President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana. While this answer was not unexpected, the one sentence answer given spoke volumes. Every other question in the top ten received at least a detailed answer and some had a paragraph devoted to them.

I never expected Obama to expend any political capital on drug policy issues beyond ending mandatory minimums. I did have fleeting hope that he would not express support for the drug war. These hopes were thrashed when after a trip to Mexico and meeting with President Calderon, he began speaking in the common prose of a prohibitionist. He expressed his commitment to Plan Merida, the Mexican version of the destructive and wasteful Plan Colombia. He also expressed the commitment to devoting law enforcement and military resources to reducing drug trafficking and abuse.

There were two campaign promises that Obama made on drug policy issues. He said he would end the federal ban on needle exchanges, which he believes reduce transmission of HIV and other diseases. The second was his promise to end raids on medical cannabis dispensaries in states where the law has authorized. The first went down in flames in February when the budget was released. It states unequivocally that no federal funds will be used for needle exchange programs. The second has been implemented with mixed results. Now when DEA raids a dispensary, they claim they are assisting local law enforcement agencies that are executing warrants based on violations of state law. It is obvious that Obama was naive at best to think that a rogue agency like DEA would actually abide by not only the letter but the spirit of his directive.

Lastly, the Senate confirmed his nominee for Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske earlier today. He is former chief of the Seattle Police Department. Initially this pick was lauded, because compared to Bush's drug czar, he is a breath of fresh air. He did not object to making cannabis violations the lowest enforcement priority in Seattle. He sent officers to the annual Hempfest not with the intent of arresting anyone, but in a true public safety capacity. He also posed no opposition to the city's needle exchange program, which has become a model for others to follow. All that said Kerlikowske having a law enforcement background is disheartening. Whether the pick was made on principle or because of politics, it shows that Obama is not ready to approach drug abuse from a public health perspective as he said in the past.