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Drug Prohibition and the President's Political Capital

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President Obama was forced to dip deep into his cache of political capital to pay for his "indiscretion" in the "Gatesgate" affair. There's little doubt the uproar served to divert attention from the white-hot issue of health care, at least for a time. (Agree with him or not, the president's original candor on the Gates arrest triggered a vigorous national discussion on race and policing. That's a good thing...if we have the nerve and the wisdom to sustain the conversation beyond a few news cycles -- and the self-control to keep it civilized and constructive.)

The controversy did raise questions about the president's reputation for staying on message, for avoiding needless setbacks to his political agenda.

There's little doubt it was Obama's vaunted personal discipline that motivated him to swiftly dismiss the "marijuana question" during his electronic town hall meeting back in March. He appears to have decided, for purely political reasons, to just say no to consequential drug policy reform.

How can a man of Obama's intellect deny the breathtaking failure of the drug war, and its violence-inducing predicate, prohibition? For that matter, why has he not corrected or muzzled his drug czar when the man speaks repetitively and erroneously of marijuana as dangerous and addictive, and possessed of no medicinal value?

Make no mistake, the president gets it. He knows the personal suffering our laws and policies have caused, the violence they've wrought, the endless drain on our treasury. He's said as much in the past.

But at a time when his administration is struggling to right the economy and secure meaningful health care for all, he no doubt believes he cannot afford yet another brouhaha of the type and proportion threatened simply by raising the subject.

Given the ugly, visceral tone and tenor of his opposition, his fears might well be warranted. Merely calling for an honest examination of our drug policies would likely prompt even more frightened and ignorant citizens to join the agitated souls who continue to question the president's birthplace (that includes you, Liz and Lou), compare him to Hitler, and scream down free speech at congressional members' public gatherings on health care.

Yet there's no escaping the reality that the country's collective imagination, fueled by research and compassion, has shifted toward saner drug laws. Polls have shown that the overwhelming majority of us believe the drug war has failed, and that ending it is long overdue. Support for the legalization of marijuana stands at greater than half the population, with fresh converts signing on daily. And people are finally beginning to understand a simple truth about drugs: The more dangerous a substance, the more sinister its reputation, the greater the justification for replacing prohibition with regulation.

Conventional wisdom has Obama tackling drug law reform in 2012 (if then), not before.

Meanwhile, change we can believe in must come from voter initiatives and/or legislative action in each of the 50 states, pressure on the U.S. Congress, and support for Senator Webb's courageous efforts to radically overhaul our criminal justice system, including its drug laws.