Although Arianna Huffington is correct in noting that the War on Drugs has not been a topic debated by democratic candidates for president, it is important to point out that Senator Obama has spoken out about drug war inequities during the course of this campaign. In an address at Howard University last fall he said the following:
"I think it's time we also took a hard look at the wisdom of locking up some first-time, non-violent drug users for decades. Someone once said that '...long minimum sentences for first-time users may not be the best way to occupy jail space and/or heal people from their disease.' That someone was George W. Bush - six years ago. I don't say this very often, but I agree with the president. The difference is, he hasn't done anything about it. When I'm president, I will. We will review these sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive warehousing of non-violent offenders. And we will give first-time, non-violent drug offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior. So let's reform this system. Let's do what's smart. Let's do what's just".
We were pleased that Senator Obama made the comments at Howard University because that is the host institution for the National African American Drug Policy Coalition. This is a coalition of over twenty five organizations of black professionals representing such diverse fields as law enforcement, health care and education who believe that the current war on drugs is misguided and destructive. The goal of the Coalition is to change national drug policy to make the war on drugs a public health battle rather than a criminal justice war.
The idea for the NAADPC arose from the work of attorney Clyde Bailey, 61st president of the National Bar Association. He recognized that the "drug problem" was not a singular problem but a multifaceted matter of crime, addiction and AIDS. Bailey had spoken to doctors and nurses who talked about the health issues of addiction and AIDS and who felt prosecution was not an appropriate or effective response to those issues. He spoke to public school teachers about their difficulties in educating children impacted by substance abuse. Social workers talked about family disruption and dysfunction and how the sins of one generation continued to affect the next because of the revolving door impacts of the criminal justice system. From these discussions, a clear picture emerged of the need for the people of diverse professions to come together to help move the country into a more positive and productive direction with respect to the War on Drugs. So in 2003, the NAADPC was established, and since that time its members have worked with local, state and national officials to implement more rational and humane drug control policies.
In all these efforts the clear need for enlightened presidential leadership has been demonstrated. Senator Obama's remarks notwithstanding, the relative silence by presidential candidates about the War on Drugs has been disappointing but not surprising. The next president will be in office when we commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Harrison Narcotics Act, which many consider to be the beginning of the war on drugs. Hopefully, the next president will listen to the voices of reform and instead of continuing this hundred-year war, he or she will find a new definition of victory and finally achieve peace in the War on Drugs.