Barack Obama said it himself: “I think the War on Drugs has been an utter failure. I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws, but I’m not somebody who believes in legalization of marijuana. I do believe we need to rethink how we’re operating in the drug wars — we’re not doing a good job.”
The problem is that he said it January 21, 2004 when he was just coming forward with his desires to be a senator. Six years later, as president, we have yet to see such a change forthcoming.
Obama—or, that is to say, his anti-drug “czar” Gil Kerlikowske—does not share a desire to decriminalize any drugs. Such a declaration has calmed many, disgusted others, and given the impression that this administration will continue with the same policies as Obama’s seven predecessors.
Since 1969, Washington has spent thousands of dollars in destroying drug-producing operations abroad and has imposed severe drug laws at home, but, until now, has been unsuccessful in halting—or even slowing—the demand for drugs.
But what is changing is the public attitude of the typical U.S. citizen toward drug prohibition and, above all, toward the fines and punishments associated with drug use, especially marijuana. According to a recent poll, 44 percent of the population is in favor of legalization. If this tendency continues, in only three years—by 2013—half of US citizens will demand that marijuana be treated the same as tobacco and alcohol.
On the other hand, what Kerlikowske did not say is that, even though the federal government’s policy demands that its response be a certain “no” to any such legislation, his position really holds a very limited jurisdiction in a country where each state is sovereign and creates its own laws. In fact, fourteen of them have decriminalized marijuana.
In other words, federal agents cannot arrest anyone who uses marijuana for medicinal purposes in those states where it is legal to do so. Such states include Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. In the District of Columbia, a law was recently passed which gives its 66,000 inhabitants the freedom to choose.
Those in favor of the legalization of marijuana—and among such people are scientists, winners of the Nobel Prize, prominent politicians and economists—allege that the severe laws against the drug are not only pushing millions of United States citizens to greater alcohol consumption, in turn bringing about violence and thousands of deaths that could be avoided, but are also contributing to prison overpopulation. Every 38 seconds someone is arrested for possession of marijuana.
Marijuana, declared a controlled substance in 1937, is, nevertheless, so easy to obtain that some 100 million citizens of the United States—among them President Obama himself—have tried it at least once. Further, some 15 million use it on a regular basis.
By the same token, the most frequent argument used in favor of the legalization of marijuana is economic, since annual sales of the drug rival those of alcohol. Taking this into account, the contention is that if users of the drug were to pay taxes, the resulting income would more than suffice to get the country out of the recession, in the same way that the lifting of the Dry Law in 1933 helped the U.S. to rise out of the Great Depression.
This idea infuriates those who oppose the legislation. They ask, in turn, if it would not also be worth it, then, to legalize human trafficking and present-day slavery in order to rescue the banks from collapse.
In any case, there is no doubt that alcohol, tobacco and marijuana are dangerous to people's health, and the legalization of marijuana would only give people permission to become addicted to one more vice. However, maybe advocates of legalization are right—maybe adults should be given the freedom to make their own choices.
Therefore, and in spite of his unqualified “no” this week to the legalization of marijuana, Kerlikowske—the man that Obama chose as his top official for drug policy—seems much more open than his predecessors with respect to changing the way they go about battling drug abuse.
Right off the bat he said that he would not use warlike terms and that he was not going to approach this as any kind of a “war on drugs” nor as a war against anyone. He said that he would deal with the problem as a public health—and not a judicial—concern. He has made it clear that this government thinks that the solution lies with the rehabilitation of drug addicts, not with their incarceration.
It is not surprising, then, that before coming to Washington, Kerlikowske was chief of police in Seattle, and, during his tenure in that position, the crime of possession of marijuana became the least important on his list of priorities; those who ran red lights were much more likely to be pursued and prosecuted.