03/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Opportunity For President Obama: Change America's Status Quo on Drug Policy

During the President's transition to power, his "Open For Questions" web site received thousands of questions. The most popular question concerned marijuana decriminalization. While many were deemed worthy of serious, nuanced responses, the marijuana question was dismissed with a single sentence: "President-elect Obama does not support the legalization of marijuana."

Having described the War On Drugs as an "utter failure" a few years ago, the President owes Americans a much better explanation.

The word is that the President will name Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as the next "drug czar." While Chief Kerlikowske will undoubtedly represent an improvement from the past, his appointment will sadly demonstrate that our new President wishes to continue a status quo, law enforcement approach.

Mr. President: the status quo has failed. The only outcomes of this unjust "war" have been the destruction of millions of lives and billions of dollars. Our punitive approach is extinguishing human hope, tearing families apart, empowering violent criminal enterprises, and - at a time of dramatically shrinking budgets - straining social and police resources to their breaking point.

Drug offenders represent the largest source of our prison population growth, and more than half of federal inmates are drug offenders. More than a half-million people are currently serving prison time for non-violent drug offenses and one third of all women in jail are serving time for a non-violent drug conviction. One out of every nine young black men in America lives in a prison. The direct cost of this imprisonment exceeds $14 billion annually, and the additional law enforcement support costs drive the yearly tab to well beyond $40 billion.

This year, about two million people will be arrested for a drug offense. In a great number of these cases, young Americans guilty of nothing more than the possession of a politically incorrect intoxicant - ranging from marijuana to crack cocaine - will be separated from their families, stripped of eligibility for student aid, and eternally exiled from the world of gainful employment. This unfolds hundreds of times each day while we - the privileged - sip our martinis and dare wonder why they don't make better lives for themselves.

These policies have amounted to nothing short of a genocide. Millions of supposedly free Americans - most of them poor black Americans - have been arrested, imprisoned, and had their hopes and futures destroyed - all for possessing the moral equivalent of a bottle of wine.

Beyond staggering social costs, these policies have seriously damaged the Constitutional rights of us all. In the name of protecting us from our vices, we have assented to the evisceration of our fourth, fifth, eighth and tenth Amendment rights. And recently, in the Supreme Court's Morse v. Frederick decision (colloquially known as "Bong Hits for Jesus"), we trimmed our hallowed First Amendment rights as well: the Court actually ruled that speech can be selectively punished based merely on its marijuana-based content. This is a flagrant affront to the Framers' First Amendment intent that no idea should ever be considered too dangerous to be heard.

Our double standards are staggering: American television networks sandwich "anti-drug" ads between beer commercials and dreamy sequences that promote "medications" to cheer us up. That most of us miss the irony is a vivid demonstration of our blindness; it would be funny were it not so heartbreaking.

With 800,000 people arrested annually for marijuana offenses alone, even so-called "soft drugs" are not immune from our insanity. John Walters, President George W. Bush's drug czar, recently referred to marijuana growers as "violent criminal terrorists .. who wouldn't hesitate to help other terrorists get into the country with the aim of causing mass casualties." I do not know a single human being who believes this to be true, yet his conflation of two drastically different problems went completely unchallenged by the mainstream media - and by most of us who were paying his salary.

Whether with marijuana, cocaine, or other illicit drugs, it never seems to matter that the sensationalism is unsupported by the facts. These monumental inequities are based entirely on ideology, superstition, and racism. The science - that is, in the rare instances when the interest-conflicted DEA permits such science to be done - doesn't support the logic of these policies at all.

Even today, the mere suggestion that the demonized substance du jour isn't a major threat is considered fringe, unserious, and hardly worthy of acknowledgment, let alone any serious intellectual indulgence.

One of the stated principles of the Obama Administration with regard to science and health policy is to "restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on ideological predispositions." The millions victimized by our War On Some Drugs would benefit immensely from the reality-based approach that this principle demands.

We sometimes look back on historic injustices - slavery, segregation, internment - and wonder why so many good citizens stood by and did nothing while epic moral crimes unfolded around them. Likewise, our children and grandchildren will demand to know why we stood by and did nothing in the face of this.

Our nation confronts unprecedented - even existential - social and economic challenges, thus we must be unafraid to ask the big questions. One such question is: how can a nation committed to justice and liberty for all continue to enforce policies that corrode liberties, destroy communities, strain police forces, and empower violent criminals?

As the Great Depression ravaged our society in the 1930s, we came to realize that alcohol prohibition was creating more problems than it solved. A perfect parallel, the War On Drugs is socially, morally, and economically unsustainable, and the time has come to end it.

In contemporary American politics, there are few things more blasphemous than suggesting we end the War On Drugs. But we'd do well to remember what George Bernard Shaw once said: all great truths begin as blasphemies.