As someone who cares about humane drug policy, I expect politicians to disappoint me. Obama created a rare glimmer of light here with his honesty about his own experience -- but his choice of drug warriors like Joe Biden and Rahm Emmanuel for high level posts has made me wary.
Now, with a new raid on California's medical marijuana dispensaries and with Bush holdovers trying to push the UN to drop support for needle exchange and other harm reduction programs in its document to set drug policy for the next ten years, I am beginning to lose hope.
Amazingly, however, progressives in Congress (!) are speaking out about the possible UN fiasco -- sending a letter to our new UN Ambassador Susan Rice to protest the actions of these officials. Reps. Henry Waxman, Jose Serrano and Barbara Lee write:
Unfortunately, we understand that the U.S. delegation in Vienna has been actively blocking the efforts of some of our closest allies -- including the European Union -- to incorporate into the declaration reference to harm reduction measures such as needle exchange. We find it hard to understand how the U.S. delegation could object to language which would not obligate any country to adopt particular policies with which it disagrees.
I will go further. Obama has said that he supports lifting the federal ban on funding for needle exchange programs in the U.S. and that he supports science-based policy, which backs this action. He has said that he will end the raids on medical marijuana in states that have legalized it.
I suspect that he's afraid that any action in this direction will be jumped on with glee by right-wing critics. I think he fears a repeat of the Clinton administration's "Don't ask, don't tell," culture war disaster. But as he pointed out to his critics in relation to economic policy, "I won."
That's right, Mr. President, you won! And you won not despite taking evidence-based positions on tough issues -- but because you did so.
I think you'll find that when people are worried about their jobs, it's hard for them to work up steam about imaginary bogeymen like those hyped by drug warriors. When you face real problems like feeding your kids, false hypotheticals like needle exchange "sending the wrong message" and turning us into a nation of junkies just don't get traction. (Quick question: would making clean needles available make you start shooting up? Didn't think so -- and same is true for everyone who is not already doing so!).
When your financial future is at risk, it's hard to see spending money on raiding and incarcerating medical marijuana users and distributors as a good investment -- or even to see medical marijuana use as a problem, let alone one worthy of expensive and ineffective police intervention. (Has medical marijuana made your or your kids into dope fiends? Surveys find states with it tend to have *less* use by youth).
Take advantage of this rare opportunity to expose the tired rhetoric of the drug war and do the right thing, as you promised. Support harm reduction like the rest of the developed world does. Recognize how out of touch the U.S. has become in its drug strategy.
This is not the 70s or even the 80s or 90s -- like Bush's economic policies, his drug policies have visibly and risibly failed. The main power drug warriors have left is politicians' outsized fear of their past success. Don't give them undue credit--and don't underestimate how the ground has shifted in favor of sane, humane drug strategy, not war.
Follow Maia Szalavitz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/maiasz