THE BLOG
01/26/2013 12:19 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2013

Obama's Drug Problem

Some years ago a colleague of mine who, like Obama, had snorted coke and smoked weed, experienced a mild state of conflict when called to jury duty for a case involving a teenager accused of possession of an illegal substance: 15 amphetamine pills. He had to resolve his conflict rather quickly, however, when he was appointed jury chair and oversaw a guilty conviction and a four-year prison sentence for the young man.

Barack Obama admits to having tried cocaine and marijuana but has overseen the largest increase in imprisonment for drug possession in the country's history. Whether with his approval or of its own volition, the drug-enforcement establishment (including state and federal agencies) continues to enforce federal anti-drug laws even in states that have legalized medical marijuana. And since November 2012 these agencies have been facing a dilemma: Will they enforce drug laws in Washington and Colorado, where voters themselves have approved referenda legalizing the recreational use of marijuana? If they do not enforce these laws in Washington or Colorado, how can they enforce them in Oregon and Wyoming?

Of course, they can, and they will. Law-enforcement agencies are themselves "addicted" to drugs. They have grown dependent on the crime-fighting statistics generated by drug arrests. The employment of prison staff depends on extraordinary rates of incarceration. The money that law-enforcement agencies generate from confiscating property seized in drug busts funds equipment, enhances salaries and pays for weapons. Among the properties confiscated are homes owned by women whose partners are accused of selling or storing drugs in their homes (they need not be convicted), whether or not the women were aware of their partners' activities.

The hypocrisy of drug laws is but a small part of the problem. In an era when the search is on to save money on education, road building and medical care, vast sums are wasted on the so-called "war on drugs" with absolutely no benefits and many negative effects. The budget for the DEA is over $2 billion a year for enforcement, and it's increasing every year. State and local law enforcement spend just as much. There are additional units in the State Department, the Department of Defense and several other federal agencies. State prisons are overflowing with people sentenced for drug offenses, at a cost of $31,000 a year per prisoner.

In spite of these exorbitant expenditures, drug use has not declined since the war on drugs began. According to the University of Michigan's annual surveys of drug use among high school students, the rate of drug use has remained constant since the surveys began in 1991, with slight variations up and down as drugs come into and out of fashion.

Data on drug use show that drug dealers, both youth and adults, are more likely to be white (especially at the wholesale level), and that, controlling for variables like socioeconomic status, the white population uses all types of illegal drugs (even crack cocaine) at a higher rate than the black population. Nevertheless, it is the black population that is the major resource sustaining the law-enforcement establishment, bolstering the prosecutor's record of accomplishment and filling the prisons to create jobs -- especially in rural areas, where unemployment rates are highest. And the price paid by the black community is devastating. Working-age men who do not have a prison or arrest record are becoming increasingly rare. Black communities cannot depend on, nor do they trust, law-enforcement agencies to be fair and impartial. Ask any black man on the street if the enforcement of drug laws is colorblind, and he will laugh at the question.

The U.S. is one of the few industrialized countries still enforcing draconian anti-drug laws. Most European countries either have adopted policies that make possession of drugs a misdemeanor punishable by a fine or have decriminalized drugs altogether. Portugal, the most progressive country in Europe with respect to drug laws, has decriminalized all drugs. In Portugal and other European countries the results have been almost uniformly positive: a decline in drug-related illnesses (e.g., AIDS and hepatitis), an increase in people seeking help for drug addiction and no increase in drug use or an influx of addicts from other countries.

Obama and his Attorney General could decriminalize drugs without having to pass legislation. The opportunity to start down this road is provided by the states that have legalized medical marijuana and those that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. But for fortune, Obama himself could have been sent to prison for using illegal drugs. Instead, he became the president fo the United States. One would hope that such a life experience would make him an enlightened president. Enlightened or not, does Obama have the courage to go against the law-enforcement establishment?

To read the companion article by HuffPost's Ryan Grim and Ryan J. Reilly, click here. To read the companion blog post by Paul Armentano of NORML, click here.