Fixing Our Drug Policy Will Require A Hatchet, Not A Scalpel

Two different staffers at the Drug Czar's office have both used the same word recently to describe Obama's approach to drug policy. That word, if you can believe it, is reform. It's a term I use an awful lot myself, and I must admit I'm more than a little intrigued to find Obama's top anti-drug officials co-opting the catchphrases of their critics.

Here's Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for the Drug Czar, making the case here in the Huffington Post that Obama's approach to drug policy is something new and dramatically different than what we've seen in the past:

The complexity and scale of our drug problem requires a nationwide effort to support smart drug policies that reduce drug use and its consequences. Since day one, the Obama Administration has been engaged in an unprecedented government-wide effort to reform our nation's drug policies and restore balance to the way we deal with the drug problem. We have pursued a variety of alternatives that abandon an unproductive enforcement-only "War on Drugs" approach to drug control and acknowledge we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem and, further, that drug addiction is a disease of the brain, not some "moral failing."

It sounds pretty exciting, doesn't it? If you'd never followed the issue until now, you might come away with the impression that fundamental changes are taking place. But many of us in the drug policy reform movement have been following this issue for a long time, and memory serves us quite a bit more faithfully than you might infer based on our constant insistence that the law not prohibit us from consuming certain substances.

A decade ago, the Bush Administration was making the same claims we hear from Obama today:

"The president has a balanced approach to the problem of drug abuse in America that emphasizes both treatment and prevention," White House spokeswoman Anne Womack said. "We're confident that John Walters will do an excellent job of implementing the president's vision." [USA Today]

Examples of the Bush administration's self-proclaimed commitment to a "balanced approach to drug control" are abundant, but I chose this one because of its shudderingly ironic same-breath endorsement of John "Unbalanced Approach" Walters to serve as the nation's Drug Czar. Walters went on to badly shatter the credibility of that office, all the while insisting that he was restoring balance to our anti-drug programs and perfecting a formula for success that was vindicated repeatedly according to numerous press releases from and studies commissioned by... John Walters.

Under Obama, we're still spending more on enforcement and interdiction than prevention and treatment, and we're still being told that we ought to be proud of the balanced approach that the President's anti-drug officials have prepared. Obama's budget is a bit more balanced than Bush's, and corrects some serious accounting shell games, but it still spends its bulk on busting and burning our way to a future free of violence, destruction, and people smoking marijuana in their basements. It appears not to be working.

Nevertheless, Lemaitre's remarks do reflect a rather remarkable phenomenon in the drug policy debate: the president and his top anti-drug officials are trying to soften their image when it comes to drugs. That much is pretty clear, and pretty interesting to see when you consider the history of the issue. Despite our disappointment with the substance of Obama's policy on controlled substances, we can and should applaud the President for at least understanding that the thoughtless tough-on-drugs pandering of the 80s and 90s has no place in modern American politics.

We want change, and it's obvious from the rhetoric we're hearing lately that our message hasn't fallen entirely on deaf ears. The Obama Administration's efforts to acknowledge the problems with our drug policy, however disingenuous and insufficient as they may be, are still a welcome departure from the days when politicians spoke only of packing more muscle onto the long arm of the law. If there's any hope of replacing decades of kneejerk drug war idiocy with an actual adult conversation, I suppose that process would begin more or less like this.