Thursday, September 25, 2008

Obama on Drugs

Will he do anything about the Drug War?

One issue largely missing in action during the presidential campaign has been the Drug War, and all the policy implications for addiction treatment that go with it. Our thanks go out to OnTheIssues blog for compiling the admittedly skimpy record of public statements about drug policy by both candidates. In this post, we examine the on-the-record views of Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

The official Obama plan, as outlined in his campaign booklet, Blueprint for Change, calls for greater use of drug courts, job training for ex-offenders, and the elimination of sentencing disparities like the crack/powdered cocaine inequities. He does not favor lowering the current drinking age from 21 to 18, despite a collective push to do so by dozens of university presidents.

In an AP report posted at Drug WarRant, Obama said, “I’m not interested in legalizing drugs.” His focus, he said, was on emphasizing the public health approach to drugs over the prison approach. “All we do is give them a master’s degree in criminology.”

In a speech at Howard University, he told the crowd that “it’s time to take a hard look at the wisdom of locking up some first-time, non-violent drug users for decades.... We will review these sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive warehousing of non-violent offenders.... So let’s reform this system. Let’s do what’s smart. Let’s do what’s just.”

In reference to the HIV/AIDS crisis, Obama has said that “we have to look at drastic measures, potentially like needle exchange in order to insure that drug users are not transmitting the disease to each other. And we’ve got to expand on treatment.”

Obama himself--a former cigarette smoker--is no complete stranger to drugs, having admitted to high school and college drug use in his book, Dreams from My Father. On page 87, he writes that he used to get high as a way to “push questions of who I was out of my mind, something that could flatten out the landscape of my heart, blur the edges of my memory.... Everybody was welcome into the club of disaffection. And if the high didn’t solve whatever it was that was getting you down, it could at least help you laugh at the world’s ongoing folly and see through all the hypocrisy and bullshit and cheap moralism.”

On a Tonight Show appearance with Jay Leno, when reference was made to President Bill Clinton’s famous claim that he “didn’t inhale,” Obama responded, “That was the point.”

As Kurt Schmoke, the former mayor of Baltimore, wrote: “The relative silence by presidential candidates about the War on Drugs has been disappointing but not surprising. The next president will be in office when we commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Harrison Narcotics Act, which many consider to the beginning of the war on drugs. Hopefully, the new president will listen to the voices of reform....”

It appears that Senator Obama is at least partially receptive to the goal of changing national drug policy “to make the war on drugs a public health battle rather than a criminal justice war,” as Schmoke wrote.

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