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."
Sixty-seven percent of our nation's police chiefs consider the war on drugs a failure. Last week the Global Commission on Drug Policy declared the same thing, and we assume that folks like Kofi Annan, George Schultz and Paul Volcker must be on to something.
In response to them, the Obama folks trotted out statistics showing that drug use has declined some since the 1970s. How nice — but at what cost? Surely Obama, Kerlikowske and Attorney General Eric Holder don't think that the massive uptick in incarceration, the hideous disproportion of black men subjected to it and the destruction of black communities in the wake of that incarceration rate have been a mere matter of the eggs one must crack to make an omelet.
Truly — they simply cannot think this, and do not. Yet Holder, when asked recently whether he thought ending the war on drugs would cut down on the deaths of police officers, mumbled, "I don't think that's right … " and walked away (watch that one here). This willful lack of attention to such an urgent problem is one of the few ways in which the Obama administration seems callous at this point.
Not to mention, just plain fake: The Hoo-bama analogy goes further. Hoover privately liked a postwork drink and had previously cultivated a wine cellar; meanwhile, LEAP's report properly notes, "The Obama administration, like at least the two that preceded it, is led by people who used illicit drugs and went on to have productive lives. It is a source of great shame that none of these presidents took real steps to end a policy, which, if fairly administered, would likely have prevented them from entering politics in the first place."
Put it this way: Obama could get people like West off his back and be a meaningfully pro-black president — not to mention a bracingly pro-human one — by addressing the war on drugs for real. No more lip service, such as Holder's dutifully hoping for another season of The Wire, despite his apparent lack of interest in actually putting to use the show's lessons about the drug war. The Wire's creator David Simon hit the bullseye in saying that he and co-creator Ed Burns would be happy to launch a new Wire season if the Obama administration would get real about the war on drugs.
We should let President Obama know that the time has come, in large numbers. Over the past week, more than 2,500 people have sent letters to him about the drug war through LEAP's website (you can, too, right here). As the LEAP report notes, "Our President is chasing change. He needs to catch up."
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.