(The Root) — Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: the war on drugs. See previous postings in this series here.
Background: One of the issues that perhaps deserved more attention during the 2012 presidential campaign was America's four-decades-long war on drugs.
Since the supposed "war" was conceived in 1971 under President Richard Nixon, the nation has spent at least a trillion dollars, both domestically and internationally, in an attempt to eradicate the drug trade. The result has been a vast expansion of America's prison industrial complex, an erosion of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure and the filling of American prisons with nonviolent offenders — many of whom are disproportionately black and brown.
A seminal work, The New Jim Crow, by civil rights attorney and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, has drawn much-needed attention to the fact that the domestic drug war has been applied almost exclusively to poorer communities of color, and as a result has achieved the same outcomes as slavery and Jim Crow. Expansive police authorities, disproportionate sentencing for crack and powder cocaine, classification of marijuana as a dangerous Schedule I drug, misguided mandatory minimums and three-strike rules have left two generations of African-American males behind bars, on parole, forever shackled and disenfranchised.
And the problem is getting worse.
After Mexico's 2006 election, which saw the ascension of President Felipe Calderón, the Drug Enforcement Agency supported his effort to launch a military-style offensive against Mexico's powerful drug cartels. Escalating violence has left 50,000 dead across that country and weakened U.S. border security — while exposing huge loopholes in the gun trade and highlighting the overall failure of federal efforts to contain violence or successfully regulate the drug trade.
As nonviolent, young African-American and Latino males are stopped, frisked and arrested for marijuana possession, the drug war rages on and fuels a multibillion-dollar industry, further justifying bloated law enforcement budgets that offer lawmakers no incentive to change the status quo.
First-term accomplishments: In August 2010, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder delivered on their promise for a more equitable approach to drug enforcement. The Fair Sentencing Act cut the disparity in punishment for cases involving crack as opposed to powder cocaine, which had ballooned drug sentences in urban areas where crack was perceived to be more prevalent. Despite research showing the majority of crack dealers and users are white or Hispanic, roughly 80 percent of those arrested and imprisoned for crack possession are African American.
For many critics, the Fair Sentencing Act didn't go far enough, since it left an 18-to-1 disparity — rather than equalizing it altogether. But Obama did eliminate the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession (without intent to distribute), which had essentially created an underclass of lifelong offenders.
Second-term hopes: The next steps are unclear. In light of Americans' more relaxed attitudes toward marijuana — most recently reflected when Washington State and Colorado both legalized recreational use of the drug — the president has vowed to not use federal resources to interfere with new state laws. Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., approve some medical use of marijuana, and its current Schedule I status is becoming untenable — socially, politically and scientifically — since the DEA lists cocaine, which is clearly more harmful and addictive, as a lesser, Schedule II drug.
President Obama's challenge will be managing the federal commitment to regulating the drug trade, while also respecting states' rights. And as civil rights leaders become more vocal on the over-policing of young black males for drug crimes, Obama's approach to this key issue, which has devastated many urban communities, will be critically important in establishing his legacy as the first African-American president.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.