The Obama Administration’s drug control policy on auto-pilot

IDPC Briefing Paper
April 2011

idpc-obamaIn a widely watched You Tube video, U.S. President Barack Obama is asked whether or not the drug war may in fact be counterproductive. Instead of the resounding NO that would have come from any of his recent predecessors, Obama responded: “I think this is an entirely legitimate topic for debate.” He then qualified his remarks by adding, “I am not in favor of legalization.” Nonetheless, even acknowledging the legitimacy of debate on U.S. drug policy is a significant shift from the past, when successive administrations stifled discussion and routinely labeled anyone promoting alternative approaches to the socalled U.S. “war on drugs” as dangerous and surreptitiously promoting massive drug use and poisoning America’s youth.

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With over two years in office, the Obama administration has had time to begin to make its mark on the government’s domestic and international drug policies. But has the welcome change in tone been matched by a change in policies? The track record to date is disappointing, with far more continuity than change. The Obama administration, apparently less fearful of being criticized as “soft on drugs,” has ratcheted down the rhetoric and has placed greater emphasis on the problem of demand and problematic drug use. Some necessary but modest changes have also taken place with respect to domestic drug policy. Yet broader drug policy reforms at the domestic level remain elusive and in the international sphere the U.S. “war on drugs” continues apace.

Conclusion and policy recommendations

While the long-term outlook may be more promising, in the short to medium term, U.S. drug control policy continues on auto-pilot. The administration’s improved rhetoric has yet to be met with concerted action. While the modest initiatives with regards to domestic drug policy mark an important departure from past approaches, their effective implementation hinges on the administration’s willingness to fund them adequately. So far, the Obama administration has not shown the political will to take on the bureaucratic battles such a shift in funding priorities would entail.

The Obama administration faces a myriad of complex domestic and international policy issues, compounded by near-gridlock in the U.S. Congress. Yet it cannot continue to ignore the costs and consequences of misguided drug policies for people and communities around the world. If the President is unable or unwilling to play a leadership role on drug policy reform, he should designate a high-level official within the administration to do so. Vice President Biden was initially tasked with overseeing the Obama administration’s drug policy, but he has never taken a public role on the issue. Whether it is Vice President Biden, a cabinet member, or ONDCP Director Kerlikowske, that person must have the political clout of the White House clearly behind him or her.

The Obama administration should also initiate a comprehensive review of how drug control efforts are evaluated; in short, a new paradigm is needed for measuring success. Listing indicators of activities – such as the number of hectares of coca eradicated, the number of cocaine processing labs destroyed and drug traffickers arrested, and the amount of cocaine seized – reveals little about the impact of policy on the ground. What is important is whether these activities affect the availability and problematic use of illicit drugs, levels of crime and violence, and the socioeconomic well-being of the communities affected. Human development and socioeconomic indicators are far more useful for evaluating progress in areas where crops used for drug production are grown, and in communities where drugs are produced, trafficked or used.

Numerous actions could and should be taken immediately. Among these, the Obama administration should stop shunning the use of harm reduction strategies that have proven to be effective in reducing the costs associated with illicit drug use and the policies designed to address such use. In addition, the 2010 National Drug Control Strategy Report promotes alternatives to incarceration through the use of drug courts; the Obama administration should promote additional measures to keep problematic drug users out of the criminal justice system and to reduce the use of imprisonment for low-level, nonviolent offenders.

With regards to international drug control efforts, the Obama administration should cease support for aerial fumigation and forced eradication and instead embrace alternative livelihood strategies that improve the welfare of poor farmers via comprehensive development strategies that include improving local governance and citizen security. It should also ensure proper sequencing in such efforts: only when viable economic livelihoods are in place can governments work with local communities to reduce the cultivation of coca and poppy crops. The U.S. government should also change the way in which it views those engaged in small-scale coca and poppy production, treating them as partners in development, rather than criminals.

Finally, the White House should ensure that its representatives from the DEA, the State Department and other agencies faithfully represent any new approaches in policy developments in international relations and programs. In adopting these measures, the Obama administration would start down the path toward the development and implementation of more humane and more effective drug control strategies.