Like the stages people who experience grief due to a personal tragedy pass through, people concerned about modifying American drug policies have dialed through these five stages since Barack Obama was elected President of the United States:
1. Unbounded enthusiasm. Drug reform advocates, along with other progressives, were wild with anticipation when Barack Obama was elected President. Aside from his remarkable background and intelligence, he was extremely well-informed about drug reform initiatives -- including clean needle programs, discrepancies in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine (which punish minorities disproportionately), and noninterference with states that have enacted medical marijuana (MM) statutes. Moreover, he called the war on drugs an "utter failure."
2. Anxiety. During the run-up to Obama's selection of a Drug Czar, a name often mentioned was Jim Ramstad, former Congressman and a recovering alcoholic who opposed all major drug reforms (e.g., needle exchange, methadone maintenance). Why would Obama even consider such a Neanderthal, his supporters wondered. Where was he coming from in all of this, they asked themselves through sleepless nights.
3. Cautious optimism. Instead, the President selected Gil Kerlikowske, who was not known for being out front in reforming drug policies as Seattle Police Chief, but who also didn't fight the city's needle exchange program and low priority on marijuana possession enforcement, nor Washington state's MM laws. Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance and the country's leading reform advocate, declared himself "cautiously optimistic" due to Kerlikowske's middle-of-the-road stance, even as he was disappointed that Obama had chosen a law enforcement officer rather than a public health advocate to be Drug Czar.
4. Euphoria. Not all drug policy change originates in the Office of National Drug Control Policy. And a number of local and state initiatives came to the fore, including continuing support by states for MM, some harm reduction measures, and - as the economic downturn hit hard - active contemplation of legalizing marijuana in order to tax revenues from its massive sales in California and around the country. Furthermore, the House Judiciary Committee eliminated the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Although he pushed none of them, these actions were all consistent with Obama's enunciated positions on drugs.
5. Disillusionment. But, from the start, Kerlikowske sounded like anything but a drug reformer. Shortly after his installment as Drug Czar, he brashly announced that any type of drug decriminalization would be "waving the white flag" and that the "legalization vocabulary doesn't exist for me and it was made clear that it doesn't exist in President Obama's vocabulary." Since then, belying his own state's policy and Obama's and Attorney General Eric Holder's statements, Kerlikowske has consistently maintained that marijuana has no medical value. All in all, Kerlikowske's orientation towards drug policy seems like, well, a cop's. And yet he seems to reflect Obama's position on reform.
Where oh where are you Mr. President? Hoping against hope that Kerlikowske is going rogue, the Drug Policy Alliance has started a letter-writing campaign to the President asking him to reassert the progressive views he had previously endorsed, and to rein in his recalcitrant Drug Czar. Of course, it seems unlikely that a control maven like Obama would really allow his Drug Czar to repeatedly defy the President's own inclinations in this area.
A more realistic scenario is that the President - facing opposition to his key policies from not only red states and hard core Republicans, but increasingly also independent voters and moderate Democrats - is unwilling to forge ahead on drug reform. Liberalizing policies towards currently illicit drugs would strike Americans as intensely alien - even as young and old Americans are turning more and more to prescription pharmaceuticals for their highs (and lows), so that there is increasingly little space between substances deemed "illicit" and "legal."
But Obama is not committed enough to drug policy reform to incur the symbolism taking any steps towards liberalization would convey. Can you imagine what the Congressional hearings, town hall conflagrations, and shrieking of people calling "I want my country back" would be like if he tried? American prudery about drugs, alcohol and whatever else will not be reversed any time soon.