Obama Will Change Drug Policy, But How?


Barack Obama campaigned for president on a platform of change, but how will that apply to drug policy? Not much specific is known now. Clues are likely to emerge in the next few weeks as important administration figures visit Mexico and Obama drug czar nominee Gil Kerlikowske, Seattle police chief, appears at his Senate confirmation hearing.

It is assumed that the president will take a softer line on drug enforcement than did the Bush administration but what that means in practice is yet to be seen. Attorney General Eric Holder gave a hint when he said that federal drug agents no longer would raid medical marijuana dispensaries that were operating in accord with state laws.

Another issue where change seems likely is the more than two-decade-old disparity in sentencing guidelines involving crack and power cocaine. Obama has opposed the 1-100 disparity in power-crack cocaine quantities that trigger a mandatory minimum prison sentence, but it is not clear how that issue will play out in terms of what the new ratio might be, if not 1-1.

On Mexico issues, the administration has signaled that it will do more on the enforcement side, but can that be very effective against powerful cartels and will it do anything about the large demand for illegal drugs in the U.S. that is fueling the border violence?

Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, which contends that the war on drugs has “led to a more efficient drug trade and a hugely profitable drug market,” hopes that the administration will rethink the enforcement-dominated federal drug policy. Sterling would like to see the feds delegate more enforcement to state and local prosecutors, for example. In the meantime, even a “different rhetorical approach” that might be taken by Kerlikowske, “would be dramatic,” Sterling believes.

It’s a fair bet that the Obama administration will move to increase treatment and limit enforcement, but how soon anything significant will happen is not known. Drug policy is at best a fourth tier issue behind the economy, health care, and foreign wars, and key personnel moves are far from being made

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