Why Won’t Obama End the War on Drugs?

After 40 years, we've failed to bring the illegal drug trade under control. But the administration won't even consider a real change.

Getty Images
Getty Images

The Obama administration’s deafness to the growing chorus of opposition to the senseless war on drugs has become so appalling that you almost start thinking Cornel West was right. About Obama’s supposed lack of interest in black concerns, that is.

I know that’s not actually the problem: the president has to prioritize. With the economy such as it is, and the three wars we are waging abroad, such as they are, it’s not surprising that Obama has not taken on the politically fraught task of truly ending the New Prohibition.

I have written that Obama should get to the war on drugs in his second term. But that was two years ago; now there are preliminaries, positions, possibilities to be investigated. So far Obama refuses to make even a pretense.

It’s gotten this bad: On Tuesday, representatives of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition sought a hearing with Obama’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, who has refused repeated requests for even a simple sit-down. LEAP includes officers, judges, prosecutors, agents and military officers united in the conclusion that the war on drugs has been a failure, and all they wanted was to put in Kerlikowske’s hands their new report on the issue.

Kerlikowske wouldn’t even appear, instead sending down a skittish aide. Just look at how the encounter played out in this photo, of LEAP’s executive director, Neill Franklin, on the left, with the aide in question. Serious people with a serious concern seek a bit of face time with the administration devoted to change we can believe in, and they get treated as if they’re a bunch of 11-year-olds agitating for one more Harry Potter movie.

Kerlikowske has actually claimed that the Obama administration has ended the war on drugs — but what he means is that they have decided not to call it that. This is mere semantics of the “It depends on what ‘is’ is” kind. Obama has said, “We have to think more about drugs as a public health problem,” but under his watch, punishment for drug possession and use has been funded more highly, while funds for treatment under the Department of Education have been slashed by a third.

It gets worse. Drug arrests during Obama’s first year in office were higher than they were in George Bush’s first year. There have been about 100 marijuana raids under the Obama administration so far, while during all eight of the Bush years, there were only about 200.

If there is any through line from Obama’s speech at Chicago’s Grant Park to this, I’m having trouble gleaning it. The Obama folks are so grievously behind the curve on the war on drugs that their approach will look as tacky and antique in the history books as Herbert Hoover’s support for Prohibition as “an experiment noble in purpose.”