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Maia Szalavitz Headshot

Barack Obama's Meth Menace

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Barack Obama is a dream candidate in so many ways. The mere idea of someone who can write (and presumably therefore think) in a complex yet compelling fashion is almost irresistibly seductive, especially now. Unfortunately, in terms of drug policy, despite his candid and refreshing discussion of his own use, he apparently remains part of our on-going national nightmare.

While no politician is perfect on every issue, Obama's support of the Byrne grant program to fight methamphetamine-- which is prominently highlighted on his website-- is deeply troubling. This program is opposed by both Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform and the American Conservative Union on the right-- and the ACLU and George Soros' Open Society Institute on the left. Arianna covered it here.

Even the government's own watchdog Office on Management and Budget doesn't support Byrne grants: it gave them a 13% rating for results and accountability. Randomly answering the questions on a standardized multiple-choice test would likely produce a better grade than that! The Bush administration pushed to eliminate Byrne funding last year-- but Obama supported a Senate bill which provided $900 million dollars.

So where does this money go? States have some discretion, but Obama has favored their most problematic use: funding unaccountable anti-drug task forces that have not been found to reduce drug problems, but have repeatedly produced profound injustices. The task forces are made up of local law enforcement officials who collaborate across county lines-- but this means that the chain of command is unclear and there is often little or no oversight. Obama notes that some of Illinois' funding goes to the scarily-named Southern Illinois Enforcement Group (SIEG) for an anti-methamphetamine task force.

The best-known Byrne disaster was a mass arrest in Tulia, Texas in 1999. In that tiny Texas town of 5,000 people, 16% of the black population was arrested for crack-dealing. Of those arrested, 40 of 46 were African American. No drugs or money were found during the raid and there were no audio or videotapes to corroborate the charges, just the word of one official-- but nonetheless, dozens were convicted and given jail terms of up to 90 years. Many innocent people served years in prison before finally being freed after the officer was discredited.

The problems weren't limited [pdf] to just one Texas town. At least three other Texas communities had similar, racially biased and equally flawed prosecutions resulting from these task forces. In Hearne, Texas, a similar proportion of local African Americans were arrested and incarcerated in 2001. A SWAT-team raid on the wrong house terrorized a middle-aged Texas couple in Palestine in 2000. They were confronted with seven armed police officers who burst into their home, roughly handcuffed, held and searched them.

According to a 2002 report by the Texas ACLU, there were 17 Byrne-related scandals in that state alone, involving massive racial profiling, false testimony by government witnesses, stolen drugs and falsified documents. In Kentucky and Massachusetts, millions of dollars of Byrne money was misused while Missouri, like Texas, saw convictions based on perjured testimony by police. New York, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Ohio and Wisconsin have also had Byrne grant-related problems.

The lack of accountability of Byrne task forces allows rogue officers and misguided strategies to run unchecked. A bill to rein them in died in Congress in 2005.

If Obama won't oppose this drug war excess which both George W. Bush and George Soros rejected, how likely is he to understand the need for genuine reform in far more controversial areas? I hope that this was just a case of seeking local "pork" for his state-- but the unabashed promotion of a demonstrably failed and racist law enforcement program for fighting methamphetamine is disturbing.