On June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon announced that the United States was fighting a “War on Drugs.” Nixon declared that drug abuse was “public enemy number one in the United States,” a crisis that forced the federal government to realign massive resources toward enforcement of drug law and drug treatment. Two years later, Nixon established the Drug Enforcement Agency, which still oversees drug policy today.
Over forty years and $1 trillion of spending later, the War on Drugs is a controversial policy. In 2011, the self-appointed Global Commission on Drug Policy, consisting of political leaders and public intellectuals, released a report stating, “The global war on drugs has failed.” No president, however, has seriously challenged the policy, and spending on the program has increased annually.
US drug policy also affects the United States’ relationship with Mexico because Mexican drug traffickers sell in high quantities to Americans. As many as sixty thousand people have died in Mexico as a result of drug-related violence in the last six years, and Mexican officials have repeatedly called for a shift in the United States’ approach to drug law enforcement. Instead of employing significant resources toward low-level arrests, as the United States does now, Mexico hopes to “adjust the strategy [to] focus on certain type of crimes, like kidnapping, homicide, extortion.” This would require American cooperation in the form of relaxing low-level drug arrests.
While it is unlikely that either President Obama or Governor Romney would entirely reverse US drug policy if elected in 2012, they would take very different approaches going forward.
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The Obama Approach To The Drug War Is Working
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The Obama administration has indicated that it will publicly address the failures of the War on Drugs if it wins a second term. President Obama’s Director of U.S. National Drug Control Policy—or Drug Czar—R. Gil Kerlikowske has rejected the term “War on Drugs,” stating, “the Obama Administration supports a ‘third way’ approach because balanced drug policies such as those in Sweden have accomplished much for the countries that have implemented them.”Nearing the end of the administration’s first term, however, the rhetoric has changed more than the policy. In his Fiscal Year 2013 budget, Obama requested $25.6 billion for drug enforcement—the highest annual total yet. Short of a nationwide restructuring of drug policy, the president’s ability to affect the everyday implementation of drug laws is limited. So far, President Obama has emphasized judicial and penal reform. Currently the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world, and 22 percent of those incarcerated in federal and state prisons are drug offenders. Obama hopes to begin to address these numbers. rnrnHe has supported alternatives to current detention strategies both in principle and as a cost-cutting technique. Specifically, he supports establishing of special drug courts and sentencing offenders to drug treatment programs rather than prisons. He also signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduces the disparity in sentencing of crack cocaine users as opposed to sentencing for cocaine users. rnrnThese judicial policy changes are cost-effective, pragmatic toward the goal of reducing drug use, and just. Incarceration costs approximately $30,600 annually per inmate, so treatment programs and reduced mandatory minimums for sentencing will save taxpayer dollars. The RAND Corporation (a government-supported non-profit think tank), among others, has found repeatedly that drug policies prioritizing treatment over punishment are more effective, while costing less.rnrnFinally, Obama has made US drug policy more just by reducing a sentencing disparity that had unduly punished African Americans for decades. On the side of administrative policy, the most significant change Obama has made has been to curtail the domestic drug eradication program, called the U.S. National Guard Counterdrug program. Obama’s proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget cuts spending on this program in half, which would reduce the demand for drug trafficking across the border from Mexico.rnrnIf reelected, Obama would take further steps to scale back the so-called War on Drugs. In addition to Drug Czar Kerlikowske’s rejection of that term, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also acknowledged that the United States holds much of the responsibility for the ongoing violence in Mexico. Obama has since expressed willingness to collaborate with Mexican leaders to change policy, but has not proposed a detailed plan to do so. In terms of the direction of drug policy as a whole, several Obama “aides and associates” have indicated that the President will bring drug policy to the forefront of the national discussion if he is reelected, but it is unclear what specific steps he would take, going forward. rnrnUnless drug policy suddenly finds itself thrust into the presidential debates—an unlikely prospect—American citizens (and people affected internationally) will have to wait and see, but Obama’s record suggests he will continue to scale back the War on Drugs, if only in relatively minor ways.
Governor Romney would not scale back the War on Drugs, as he supports the punitive approach that characterizes drug policy in the status quo. Romney supports punitive strategies toward criminal justice in general, such as “three strikes and you’re out” laws, which impose mandatory sentences for people who have committed three offenses. Romney maintains that those who break current laws should be punished, and therefore has proposes that states should contract with for-profit prison companies to continue expanding prison populations in order to keep up with current rates of incarceration.rnrnIf larger prisons are necessary in order to keep drug users and dealers off the streets, then they are a necessary cost. Romney also has a record of preferring prohibitory policies over those that allow drug use with the intention of making it safer. For example, as Governor of Massachusetts, he vetoed a bill to allow the sale of syringes without a prescription. He has not since stated that he would take a different approach as president, and his position on marijuana use suggests that he would continue to support prohibitory laws. Romney has staunchly opposed calls to legalize and regulate marijuana, making a moral argument against such a change by claiming that pot legalization is simply a pet issue of a “pleasure-seeking generation that never grew up.”rnrnWhile President Obama has not supported the legalization of marijuana, Romney is stronger in calling for harsh penalties for marijuana users in order to demonstrate the seriousness of the crime. He has also gone further than Obama in his opposition to marijuana by coming out against the legalization of the drug for medical use. Like Obama, Romney has indicated a willingness to talk to Mexican leaders about collaboration and has admitted the need to address large-scale demand for drugs in the United States. rnrnWhen asked how to improve the War on Drugs, he stated, “We gotta stop the demand here in this country.” Additionally, he told the Hispanic Leadership Network that along with preventing demand through education, the United States needs to improve its control of the Mexican border. rnrnOverall, Mitt Romney supports the War on Drugs, while acknowledging some room for reform. He will try to control domestic demand for drugs by prohibiting their use, educating young people about their harms (as exemplified by his record as Governor of Massachusetts), and punishing those who break the law. Through education and regulation, the United States can win the War on Drugs, rather than appease drug growers, traffickers, dealers and users.
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