The ostensibly liberal Center for American Progress gave Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Police (aka the drug czar), a platform to go on a charm offensive to convince people that the Obama administration’s drug war policies are not at all like what Republicans have always done. His talk was even called The Obama Administration’s New Drug Control Strategy. Jonathan Blanks was there and notes that the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality.
From jump street, the one-time police reformer and now head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy was clear that any talk of legalization would not be entertained. He wasted no time straw-manning the arguments of drug reformers, saying that advocates believe legalization is a “silver bullet” that would make the nation’s drug problems disappear–which no one serious says or believes. But he reiterated that removing the criminal penalty from behavior–behavior that the ONDCP, CAP, and other reformers would like to have qualified as a “public health problem” indicative of an individual’s “disease”–is “extreme.” Furthermore, the Czar added, legalization (lumped in with “enforcement-only” strategies) is ‘not humane, compassionate,or realistic.’
At that point, I knew this was going to be a long morning.
So, given that the federal behemoth–that includes the federal prison system, FBI, State Department, DHS, DEA, ICE, the U.S. Military, and the DOJ’s ambitious and relatively unfettered U.S. Attorneys–is engaged almost exclusively in “enforcement only” activities, the head of the ONDCP is complaining about “extreme” “organized and well-funded advocates” who host occasional policy forums and write blog posts, op-eds, and policy papers about rethinking the government’s current strategy.The way he tells it, you’d think the government was fighting a large, cold-blooded and ruthless force as strong as the drug cartels–who, of course, have all the incentive to maintain drug prohibition–instead of a few dedicated people whose strongest weapons are truth and the compassion he claims we lack.
And Kerlikowske actually used the cost of locking people up for drugs as a reason to keep doing it:
“Just last year, the Department of Justice released data that health, workplace, and criminal justice cost of drug abuse to American society totaled over $193 billion…Contributing to the immense cost are the millions of drug offenders under supervision in the criminal justice system”
Blanks makes the obvious response:
Yes, Chief Kerlikowske, keeping human beings in cages is expensive. Law enforcement is expensive. Lost wages from job termination resulting from drug charges is expensive. Supporting people who can’t get jobs after non-violent drug convictions is expensive. All of these are direct results of drug prohibition. This is not to diminish the other costs borne by other parties, but ‘look how much money we’re spending on this’ is not a cohesive argument when your detractors say you should be spending the time, effort, and money elsewhere.
Quite so. Now, I don’t know what Obama actually thinks about this issue. It may well be that if he had no limitations on what he could do, if he could put his actual policy preferences into law, he would opt for a more sane drug policy. But we don’t live in such a world. We live in a world where drug use has been universally demonized, where anyone who uses even the most mild drugs on only a casual, occasional basis is labeled an addict, viewed as a threat to society and, hundreds of thousands of times every year, arrested and thrown in jail. And where any politician who suggests even the most timid reform of that system is demagogically labeled “soft on drugs.” The attack ads practically write themselves.
But regardless of the reason, the fact is that Obama’s drug policies are virtually indistinguishable for what the government has done for the past 40 years despite lots and lots of promises to the contrary.