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Will Obama Undo the Harms of the War on Drugs?

The injustice lying behind the drug-related imprisonment is staggering.

Reports are circulating that President Obama is preparing to commute the sentences of dozens of individuals currently imprisoned for nonviolent drug-related crimes. So far in his presidency, he has only commuted the sentences of 43 individuals; that number is expected to approximately double with his imminent plans.

But 80 or 100 total commutations would fall far short of the 30,000 requests from federal inmates to be considered for clemency.

The injustice lying behind the drug-related imprisonment is staggering. Of those in federal prison, nearly 50 percent (over 95,000 people) are there for drug-related offenses.

Black Americans are far more likely to be arrested on drug charges than whites, even more likely to serve time for these offenses, and on average receive sentences nearly as long as the average sentence of violent white inmates.

Of the 1.5 million arrests for nonviolent drug violations in 2013, nearly 700,000 of those were for marijuana. Eighty-eight percent of marijuana arrests are for mere possession. All this despite the fact that states around the country have been liberalizing marijuana policy and have found few downsides, even where it’s been legalized for recreational use.

I could go on.

Suffice it to say that our drug policy is disastrous, and everyone knows it. Prisons are terrible places, and they are absolutely the worst tool to use for enforcing drug norms. They rob parents and children from families, disrupt communities, can promote more crime, and impose extraordinary human misery.

Drugs, of course, can also destroy families, and promote crime and human misery too. This needs to be acknowledged. But adding incrimination and punishment into the mix have only made things worse.

So if Obama follows through with a plan to reduce the sentences of non-violent drug offenders in federal prisons, it’s not only sensible policy, but necessitated by justice. But in light of the scale of the problem, shouldn’t we be demanding more?

Obama has clearly been getting bolder through his second term, overturning decades-long irrational policy on Cuba, proposed a rule to extend overtime benefits to millions of workers, issued executive actions on immigration and climate change, made progress on a nuclear deal with Iran and the TPP.

He once made a joke out of the idea of legalizing marijuana, early on in his presidency. But surely he knows this is actually quite a serious matter, considering the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives affected by drug-related incarceration, which doesn’t even count those who would benefit from legalized medical marijuana. Indeed, in a interview this year, he expressed his hope that as more states decriminalize marijuana, more sensible federal policies will follow, though he points out that decriminalization is not a panacea.

In one sense, he’s correct. Decriminalizing marijuana or any other drug won’t solve all of the problems related to the drug, and newer problems will emerge, such as how to regulate distribution. But decriminalizing or legalization would be a panacea to the immense burden placed on society by abusive and corrosive drug policies and incarceration.

To Obama’s credit, his administration has taken some significant steps forward on this issue. Last year, then Attorney General Eric Holder testified in front of congress and the U. S. Sentencing Commission which eventually acted to retroactively reduce the penalties for nonviolent drug crimes, affecting thousands of prisoners. The administration has come out in support of medical research into marijuana, and it decided not to enforce federal law in states where marijuana was legalized

But Human Rights Watch found that deportations over drug offenses rose rapidly under Obama from 2007 to 2012, up to 260,000, including 34,000 for marijuana-related charges. This includes both undocumented immigrants and those with green cards. Deportation can, of course, be devastating, tearing apart loved ones and families, ripping someone from their home.

Many have thought that Obama’s reticence on endorsing much more lenient drug policies was driven by political considerations, looking over his shoulder for his next election or the midterms. But in the third year of his second term, his actions haven’t approached the scale of the problem, and the indicated moves seem trepidatious. He could, and should, be doing a lot more.

For example, the authority to change the scheduling of marijuana, currently classified in the most dangerous category of drugs, lies with the Attorney General, rather than Congress, as Obama has claimed. This would be a hugely influential move from the administration, and though there would undoubtedly be some pushback, it’s not really clear that there’s much of a downside. Even if we thought it could affect the chances of Democrats getting elected in 2016, what’s the point of electing anyone if they’re too afraid to do the right thing?

There are other options as well. In his discretion as commander and chief, he could relax the enforcement of drug laws against immigrants. He could even forgo any formal policy changes, and simply advocate for rescheduling, decriminalization, legalization, or working further to reduce sentencing. Obviously, there’s a lot to be done before 2017, but undoing the harms of the drug war has waited long enough.

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