According to Ambinder, Obama's "aides and associates" say that the president is looking to prioritize reform, a reflection of the president's long-held beliefs that strict drug prohibition and enforcement policies have done greater damage to society than good.
Sources close to the White House also told The Huffington Post that the administration is looking at ways that it can reduce barriers to reentering society for those caught up in the drug war, such as a longstanding policy that denies federal financial aid to college students convicted of drug-related offenses, including possession.
Ambinder extensively documents a wide variety of the drug war's consequences, but if the described infirmities concern Obama enough to catalyze the reported shift, his recent policy moves have not shown a particular interest in reflecting that worry.
The president has been repeatedly accused of going back on campaign-era promises regarding deemphasizing enforcement of federal laws against medical marijuana. While Obama said in 2008 that he wouldn't use Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on medical marijuana, Attorney General Eric Holder later announced that federal authorities would continue to prosecute individuals for marijuana possession, regardless of its legalized status in some states.
The Huffington Post's Lucia Graves reported earlier this year on the administration's harsh record of enforcement:
Since [last June], the administration has unleashed an interagency cannabis crackdown that goes beyond anything seen under the Bush administration, with more than 100 raids, primarily on California pot dispensaries, many of them operating in full compliance with state laws. Since October 2009, the Justice Department has conducted more than 170 aggressive SWAT-style raids in 9 medical marijuana states, resulting in at least 61 federal indictments, according to data compiled by Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group.
Drug policy reform advocates have pointed to the hypocrisy in the administration's crackdown, especially in the light of reports in a new book that describe a high school-aged Obama with an appetite for marijuana.
"When a joint was making the rounds, he often elbowed his way in, out of turn, shouted 'Intercepted!' and took an extra hit," Maraniss writes.
Some members of the drug policy reform community are meeting reports of a potential drug war retreat with skepticism.
"Obama -- as candidate and as president -- and his drug czar have already repeatedly talked about scaling back the war on drugs. But it's been all talk," Tom Angell, spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said. "Drug Czar Kerlikowske, in his very first interview with the Wall Street Journal after taking office, declared the end of the 'war on drugs' terminology. He has repeatedly said that this is a health and not just a crime issue. But the problem is: the drug control budget still overwhelmingly devotes more resources to old, failed punishment strategies than effective treatment and prevention strategies. The rhetoric doesn't match the reality."
Kevin Sabet, who was a top drug policy adviser in the Obama administration, said that he expects to see more attention paid to the issue, but that legalization advocates won't be happy. "Though it's not the kind of reform legalization advocates might have wanted, the President's drug policy has already been innovative, public health-oriented, and cost-effective. Because its not legalization, it's tough to get a news story out of that," he told HuffPost. "At the same time, no one can say with a straight face that he has used his political capital to talk about drugs, but I do think that if there is a second term we'll see a more vocal president on this issue. There are some significant ways the President can implement a 'smart' policy - one would be to make sure people in recovery are not still paying for past actions that do not represent their current lifestyle. Another would be to meaningfully invest in law enforcement innovations that use the threat of short jail stays to enforce treatment and abstinence. But if legalization advocates are waiting for the President's 'marijuana moment,' my guess is that day will never come. The scientific consensus is that legalization would increase use, especially among kids, and I think that is not something the President wants to happen under his watch."
Angell said he's waiting to see action before he'll believe it. "So while Ambinder's story says the administration will use the 'bully pulpit' to talk about this issue in the second term, they have already done so in the first term," he said. "Sure, maybe the president himself could do more to forcefully champion this debate, but absent any real policy action it's not going to make a difference in the real medical problem of substance abuse, and it's not going to impress anyone."
Ryan Grim contributed reporting. This story was updated to include comment from Sabet.