President Obama on Drugs

The White House teamed up with Google a week after the State of the Union address to take questions for the president from average Americans submitted on chats and YouTube. Like past online forums with President Obama, questions about medical marijuana and drug legalization were some of the most popular, including one from former Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Stephen Downing, who asked Obama what he would say to the growing number of voters “who want more changes to drug policy than you have delivered in your first term”? Downing's question won twice as many votes on YouTube than any other question, but just like similar forums in the past, Obama never answered Downing's question or gave much time to drug policy at all.

Google-owned YouTube removed Downing's and other popular drug reform questions because they were deemed inappropriate, allowing Obama to dodge what has become a tough question for a president who has sent mixed signals about drug policy reform. The president did, however, take the time to answer some more personal questions.

“It's worse than silly that YouTube and Google would waste the time of the president and of the American people discussing things like midnight snacks and playing tennis when there is a much more pressing question on the minds of the people who took the time to participate in voting on submissions,” Downing said in a statement after his question was ignored. “A majority of Americans now support legalizing marijuana to de-fund cartels and gangs, lower incarceration and arrest rates and save scarce public resources, all while generating new much-needed tax revenue.”

Downing is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group that takes reform a bit more seriously than the average bong smoker. Like the cops in LEAP, 50 percent of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, including 57 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of liberals, according to an October 2011 Gallup Poll. But this popular support has not translated to action in Washington, where Congress ignores legalization bills and a president carefully avoids controversy.

Reformers are quick to criticize Obama's track record on weed, especially the medical kind, but his willingness to divert overseas drug war funding into domestic treatment and prevention programs does set him apart from conservative rivals. Considering the White House had to deal with a massive recession, two foreign wars and defending health care reform, it's also safe to assume Obama did not have much time to spend on changing Washington's attitude toward drugs or even solidifying his administration's own policies. In this final segment of the “Your Presidential Candidates on Drugs” series, Truthout takes an in-depth look at the past three years to understand exactly where Obama stands on drugs policy.

Obama Cracks Down on Medical Marijuana

As we've seen in earlier parts of this series, marijuana reform is a tough issue for politicians to embrace, let alone talk about. That hasn't always been the case for Obama, who expressed support for decriminalization and prescription pot before becoming president. Obama's election initially felt like a victory for the movement, but just last year, federal agents conducted 35 raids on medical marijuana facilities in a two-month period. The Marijuana Policy Project says Obama has gone “from first to worst on medical marijuana” when compared to other presidents.

Allen St. Pierre, secretary of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told Truthout that the federal government is going to be out of touch with the public on marijuana regardless of who's sitting in the Oval Office.

“Prohibition has created these huge bureaucracies, and [Obama] knows he can't slay them like a dragon and make them go away,” St. Pierre said.

The laws in 16 states that allow doctors to prescribe marijuana as medicine technically violate federal law. At first, it looked like the Obama administration might turn a blind eye, but St. Pierre said federal agents were conducting raids on medical marijuana facilities planned under the Bush administration just weeks after Obama took office. Reformers were still hoping for change, especially in October 2009, when Deputy Attorney General David Ogden issued the now-infamous “Ogden memo.”

The Ogden memo reiterated the administration's commitment to enforcing federal drug law in states with existing medical marijuana laws, but asked federal prosecutors not to “focus federal resources in your states on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.” According to Ogden, cancer patients and their doctors, for example, should not be subject to federal prosecution, but dispensaries and farms engaging in suspicious conduct such as cooking the books or selling to minors are still targets.

“Frankly, for the media and the medical marijuana industry and advocates, it was misunderstood,” St. Pierre said of the Ogden memo, which gave states like Colorado a false sense of confidence as they began regulating the production of medicinal weed in large quantities.

Within 18 months of the Ogden memo release, federal agents conducted at least 87 raids that lead to 27 indictments, according to Americans for Safe Access. Officials in states like Washington and Arizona received prosecution threats from the feds. By the end of 2011, the federal agents had executed more than 100 raids, putting the Obama administration on par with the Bush administration, which saw 200 raids in all eight years.

The medical marijuana movement was confused and infuriated. Amid the outcry, Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a clarification of the Ogden memo in July 2011. Cole claimed the Ogden memo was meant to protect doctors and patients, not the big cultivation operations sprouting up in California and Colorado where private growers expect to make millions of dollars off thousands of plants.

“The Odgen Memorandum,” Cole wrote, “was never intended to shield such activities from federal enforcement action and prosecution, even where those activities purport to comply with state law.”

So, the Obama administration won't give itself a public relations headache and punish a cancer patient for smoking a little herb, but federal prosecutors are ready to strike when the medical weed industry tries to grow a bunch of medical weed. Despite the crackdown, St. Pierre said that Obama would still be much better on medical marijuana policy than Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney. Obama might even make some changes in the first 18 months of his second term if he is re-elected, St. Pierre said, but that remains to be seen. Medical marijuana activists are certainly livid, but unless maverick drug reformer Ron Paul gets a miracle nomination, they will have no one else to vote for.

Obama on Drug Control at Home and Abroad

The Obama administration has not ended the war on drugs, which, in 2004, Obama himself called an “utter failure.” The White House has, however, quietly reduced funding for the international drug war while increasing funding for treatment and prevention at home. The changes in funding are baby steps when compared to the billions of dollars spent on the drug war every year, but for reformers who want to see less cartel violence and more drug offenders in treatment programs instead of jail cells, these baby steps are going in the right direction.

The president's 2012 budget request for drug control tops out at $26 billion, a $322 million increase from the 2010 budget. Prevention, treatment and law enforcement all saw increases in funding, but $456 million in international drug war funding was cut as the administration continues to transition drug control responsibilities to the governments of drug producing countries like Mexico, Colombia and Afghanistan. The administration wants to sink at least $2.1 billion into counternarcotic operations in these and other countries in 2012, but four times more money would be spent on treating drug users at home. The State Department's proposed 2013 budget includes a 10 percent decrease in military and police aid for Latin American and Caribbean countries.

The Obama administration has also cut funding to Mexico under the controversial Merida Initiative, a US-Mexico agreement established under the Bush administration. Since 2008, the US has appropriated $1.6 billion under the initiative for equipment and aid to help Mexico fight a bloody war on drug cartels, but government analysis shows that trafficking and bloodshed has only increased in recent years. In 2012, the Obama administration reduced Merida funding by $300 million, nearly half of what Mexico received in 2010. The smaller check comes with a new focus: instead of providing Mexico with police training and equipment, the US is now focused on helping Mexico reform its courts and law enforcement institutions.

This defunding of the international drug war – and a shift in focus from military and police aid to institutional reform – sets Obama apart from his hawkish potential opponents. Romney has suggested that the American and Mexican militaries should train together to fight cartels, and Santorum believes the US must be prepared to fend off Iran and Hezbollah, which he fears have entered into a conspiracy with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and drug smuggling communist guerrillas to commit narco-terrorism on American soil.

On the home front, law enforcement still receives the biggest slice of the president's drug control pie, with $9.5 billion requested for 2012. Nearly $9 billion would go to treatment, and an additional $123 million brings the total requested for drug abuse prevention to $1.6 billion for 2012.

The White House's drug control strategy gives reformers a few things to cheer about, at least in theory. The Obama administration is “working hard” to align criminal justice and health care policy to divert nonviolent drug offenders into treatment programs instead of jails and prisons. The administration also worries about mothers who abuse drugs – many choose not to seek treatment out of fear they could lose welfare benefits or even custody of their own children. The administration wants to see this change and is looking to “family-based treatment programs” around the country for new models.

The administration has also openly supported syringe-exchange clinics, which are proven to reduce the spread of disease like HIV by providing intravenous drug addicts with clean sharps. The White House did not go out on a limb to defend them, however, when social conservatives in Congress reinstated a ban on federal funding for exchange clinics in late 2011.

President Obama has not delivered the kind of changes in drug policy that reformers like Downing hope for, but he did get the ball rolling, and that trend could continue if he wins a second term. But don't expect him to say much about it on the campaign trail. Legalization and reform may top issues for political junkies on You Tube, but Obama has spent his past four years focused on foreign wars and a broken economy. These are the issues that will get him re-elected; legalizing weed will not. Perhaps if politicians like Obama had the courage to admit that out loud, American drug politics would be getting somewhere.

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