THORNTON: Obama’s ‘All of the Above’ drug control strategy means more of the same failed strategy

May 16, 2013

On April 24th the Obama administration released its annual National Drug Control Strategy.

President Obama has rhetorically stressed that education is central to getting the United States to move forward. He believes that drug use undermines this vision.  The Administration fails to recognize that the War on Drugs has done far more to limit the potential of the country than drug use has.

President Obama should know from his own experience that his rhetoric is exaggerated:

“During college, President Obama used marijuana often with his buddies in a group called the "Choom Gang." If his clique was in school today under his own drug policies, he'd be much more likely to get arrested and very likely lose the chance of becoming President, especially given the extraordinary racial disparities in marijuana law enforcement.”

His heavy marijuana use did not prevent him from succeeding in school, going to the best universities and having a very successful career.  The president must realize that if he was one of the 700,000 arrested for marijuana offenses, as people are today, that his successful education and career path would likely have been stopped. As an African American, Barak Obama would be more likely to be arrested and more likely to receive harsh treatment at every stage of the criminal justice process because racial disparity is endemic to drug law enforcement.

The Obama administration does say that research and science are of vital importance to developing a successful drug policy. Further, in their rhetoric they emphasize drug use should be a health issue, not a criminal or moral one.  However, research conducted in a ‘War on Drugs’ atmosphere is limited and does not examine the dynamics of how social controls limit drug use, how drug use is affected by law enforcement and how a drug culture develops in the ‘forbidden fruit’ environment of illegality.  As a result they do not know how to effectively deal with drug use and remain stuck in the drug war approach. 

Opium, coca, and cannabis have been used by many cultures for thousands of years medicinally and recreationally.  There were, of course, instances of addiction of opiates but in fact, the level of opiate addiction today is about the same as it was when there were no laws against opium use. There were no criminal empires or violence in history until they were declared illegal and trafficking went underground.   The 2005 UN Office of Drug Control’s World Drug Report estimated the worldwide drug trade at $320 billion. The market has grown and steadily become more sophisticated.  

Of course, we saw these same phenomena in our experience with alcohol prohibition. When alcohol was made illegal a criminal culture, corruption and underground market developed with it. Those problems no longer exist with alcohol regulation. There are alcohol abuse problems but the crime problems of prohibition have disappeared. When substances are made illegal you make the substance abuse problems worse plus you add problems created by the criminal law.

As with President Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy, which tries to please everyone, in fact it is doing great harm to the environment, bringing us to the tipping point for climate change while slowing the urgent need to transition to a carbon-fee, nuclear-free energy economy. His “all of the above” drug policy of education, treatment and law enforcement, tries to please everyone but does not confront the obvious negative consequences of the War on Drugs. As a result, we cannot applaud the administration’s policies.

As long as drugs remain illegal and unregulated, those who profit will use their learned marketing techniques to maintain their profits.  The only way to stop their activity is to put all drugs under a system of regulation and control.  While it seems intuitive that if heroin were legal, more people would use it, the facts are in countries that have put in place heroin maintenance programs, which allow addicts to buy heroin from a clinic, heroin use has gone down.  Once people begin to understand the dynamics of the drug trade, this makes sense. Addicts no longer have to sell heroin to pay for their habit, thus the illegal market shrinks. And, the removal of the profit motive ends marketing practices. Going to a clinic to obtain heroin as medicine is a lot less sexy than being seduced by a pusher into experimentation.  Understanding these realities is where minds begin to change.  If addicts can obtain heroin legally, dealers will go out of business. Every country that has tried heroin maintenance programs has found they reduce crime, reduce addiction, reduce the spread of HIV, prevent overdose deaths and allow addicts to improve their family relations, housing and employment status. The United States needs to develop pilot programs so research can be done to show whether heroin maintenance is more effective than a war on heroin.

If marijuana had been considered a medicine rather than a naughty forbidden fruit, it is not likely it would have become the most widely used illegal drug in the United States.   In an upcoming report the Green Shadow Cabinet Justice Council will go into greater detail on the history of marijuana policy and what the Obama administration should be doing in response to Washington and Colorado where voters have voted to legalize marijuana as well as the 18 states and Washington, DC where medical use is legal. The Obama administration has a tremendous opportunity to end the quagmire or the war on marijuana.  We urge him to respect the will of the voters and the rights of states to be “laboratories of democracy.”

We hope that the rhetoric of the administration which looks at drug use medically as a health problem rather than morally as a criminal law issue, is followed by policy which makes a public health approach a reality.  However, so far they are still stuck in some old prohibition policies that grow more expensive for tax payers and for the individuals arrested and incarcerated.  It is time for the United States to find a way out of the drug war.  There are evidence-based solutions that show a non-criminal policy would protect the health and safety of Americans more effectively. Both the government and individuals who seek to end the drug war must paint a clear picture of how various drugs would be handled in a legal system, just as caffeine is not treated the same as alcohol or prescription drugs; marijuana would not be treated the same as heroin or cocaine.  Regulatory systems allow flexibility based on the effects of the drugs.

Regarding marijuana, a first step in order to increase research on the drug, is to remove marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.  This is the most restrictive schedule and makes research much more difficult. There is no question that marijuana has an “accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,” 18 states and Washington, DC have policies that allow its’ medical use, numerous professional health associations recognize it. President Obama, without any involvement by Congress, can reschedule marijuana right now. There is so much to learn about possible benefits of cannabis, opiates, cocaine, psychedelics that research on these substances needs to increase.

The President's “new paradigm” is really not all that new, even George W. Bush used similar rhetoric. The President’s National Drug Control Strategy still relies on law enforcement and interdiction as the largest budget items when it comes to drug policy. The fact is that a true paradigm shift would recognize that an effective new policy would eliminate most of the drug-related crime and law enforcement would play a very limited role, focused on intoxicated driving and similar issues.

Sadly, drug education in the environment of the drug war has often been ineffective, insulting the intelligence of children for generations. Too often, drug education is really drug war propaganda that confuses rather than educates.  Drug education must be replaced by fact-based education.

The Obama Administration plans to expand access to treatment. Through the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies will be required to cover treatment for addiction just as they would cover any other chronic disease. Unfortunately, so much of the treatment that exists is not effective.  Treatment for “marijuana addiction” is a waste of resources in most cases.  Patients don't seek it rather most treatment is the result of a court ordering it.  Forced treatment fails. It is time to develop drug treatment programs that people who are having problems with drug use actually want.

The Obama administration continues mass random drug testing. Unfortunately, widespread drug testing is bad for society and has very little relevance to work performance. People are denied employment, fired, refused housing, and often incarcerated for failing a forced urine test for marijuana they smoked several days before the test that does not affect their ability to function.  Judgments about abusive use can be seen through behavioral problems, not invasive tests.  Alcohol still causes more problems to individuals and society than any of these drugs would under a legally regulated system.

Under the President's plan, we will still spend more than to $4 billion on interdiction and endure related violence on our borders, continue the violence in Mexico as well as our streets.  How much simpler would our border security be if drugs were not part of the problem?   

Presidential leadership in the 21st Century requires us to face up to the failure of the 20th Century’s war on drugs.  It is time to transform from a system of mass arrests and incarceration justified by propaganda, to a system of regulation and control, fact-based education, effective treatment and respect and dignity for the individual. 

The transition to a sensible and effective drug control strategy should begin now.  While Congress is in dysfunction and unable to consider escaping the quagmire of the war on drugs, President Obama can take steps to begin the process and in so doing build up the evidence that an end to the drug war is the best way to protect the public health and safety of Americans.

  1. Respect democracy and enter into agreements with Washington and Colorado, which just voted to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, as well as with 18 states and Washington, DC that allow the medical use of marijuana, to make their laws effective and agree not to enforce federal marijuana laws so long as marijuana is use, grown and sold consistent with state or local-government controls and the states take action to prevent marijuana from entering states that have not reformed their laws.
  2. Reschedule marijuana consistent with the scientific and medical evidence.  The Controlled Substances Act lists marijuana in Schedule I this is inappropriate as marijuana clearly has an “accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” Thousands of patients use marijuana medically, professional associations of doctors and nurses have recommended rescheduling and thousands of doctors have prescribed the drug consistent with state law. Marijuana fits most appropriately in Schedule V.
  3. Use the presidential pardon power to immediately pardon all non-violent drug offenders. Thousands of people languish in prison at great expense to the tax payers whose only offense was a non-violent drug offense.  Every day they spend in prison is a waste of their lives and undermines their potential to have a productive life. These people should be released and the federal government should provide assistance to help them transition into a successful life outside of prison.
  4. Begin research studies in several cities that have had persistent heroin addiction problems that will provide existing addicts with heroin at health clinics. The studies should be modeled on the most successful studies in Europe, e.g. the addicts come to the clinic, purchase heroin at legal prices (a fraction of the cost of the illegal market) and use the heroin at the clinic under the supervision of healthcare workers. In addition, the clinic should provide services to help find housing, employment and education as well as an open door to treatment to end their heroin use.  Studies in Europe have resulted in less crime, no overdose deaths, no spread of HIV/AIDS, reduced heroin trafficking and increases in employment, reduction in homelessness. The most surprising finding was that once they stabilized their lives with housing and employment many addicts decided to stop using heroin even though they had legal access.

These are initial steps that would begin to unwind the failed drug war. 

~ Clifford Thornton is Director of the Drug Policy Agency in the Justice Branch of the Green Shadow Cabinet.