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Sign of the high times

Obama’s decision not to prosecute medical marijuana users and sellers suggests the war on drugs is ending

Ships of state tend to change course slowly. Policies set in place over decades, and implemented by large, self-perpetuating bureaucracies and enforcement systems are pretty hard to dismantle. Fundamental change rarely happens overnight.

Much of the criticism that has been levelled at the Obama administration in recent months by progressives forgets this basic truth of politics. It’s one thing to bang the “change drum” in an election campaign. It’s another thing to use the levers of power wisely, in a way that makes that change durable.

When Barack Obama came into power, drug policy reformers were hopeful that, finally, the ill-conceived war on drugs – a war that has cost hundreds of billions of dollars, incarcerated millions of Americans, created narco-states throughout much of Latin America and failed to reduce the availability or use of illegal substances – would be ended.

After all, Obama himself had frankly admitted to his youthful experiments with an array of drugs. The new drug tsar, Gil Kerlikowske, favoured a “harm reduction” strategy that viewed drugs more as a medical than a criminal justice problem. And senior administration officials were committed to ending the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine offences.

Well, not surprisingly, big-picture changes didn’t occur instantaneously. And, if you follow the chatter on drug policy reform sites, much of the initial optimism faded. On Monday, it came roaring back.

Eric Holder, the US attorney general, announced that the feds would no longer launch raids against, and prosecute, legitimate medical marijuana dispensers and users in the 14 states around the country that have passed legislation (or citizen initiatives) allowing for the use of medical marijuana.

In and of itself, this is a relatively minor event, a common-sense corrective to another rigid and bullying Bush-era policy. And, in and of itself, there’s not much political capital at stake here for Obama. After all, you’ve got to be a pretty zealous drug-warrior to get truly morally outraged by cancer patients taking a few hits of weed to ease their nausea. With all the other troubles facing America, most Americans probably aren’t too happy with scarce resources being spent on prosecuting doper-grannies and their prescription pot suppliers.

But, there’s a bigger story here. And it’s that story of the ship of state.

If you exercise too sharp a turn, you risk capsizing. If you go into the turn gradually, giving yourself plenty of room to manoeuvre, you’ve got a much better chance of getting where you want to ultimately go.

There’s popular support for leaving medical marijuana dispensaries and users alone. Nationally, support for marijuana legalisation is at its highest point in decades, and in some states, including California, there’s now majority popular support for a broad legalisation of the drug. Last year Arnold Schwarzenegger himself broached the notion that it might be time to have a debate on this. After years in the policy wilderness, reform groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance and the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (Norml) are attracting high-profile followers to their causes.

Like the medical marijuana laws, the legalisation of pot would place individual states in legal conflict with the federal government. Under previous administrations, the knee-jerk war on drugs response would have been to launch prosecutions, to prove to the states that the feds had the muscle and the willpower to nip legalisation in the bud (as it were).

With the current policy shift on medical marijuana, and the implicit understanding that Washington is now ready to leave enforcement of such laws up to the states, there’s room for the feds to step back if and when the next wave of marijuana laws comes to pass at the state level.

And, if the sky doesn’t fall as a result of this new federal stance (or non-stance), over time the American public – conditioned since Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs in the early 1970s to regard drugs first and foremost as a criminal justice issue – will likely become more tolerant of this new, gentler, approach. And, once opinion poll numbers start moving away from more general support for the war on drugs, an increasing number of politicians will feel they have cover to do what they already know needs to be done: wind down a war that has long been unwinnable and which is now, in an era of straitened public finances, increasingly unaffordable.

If you analyse politics simply via the 24-hour-news-cycle, then Obama’s achievements in reforming drug policy have been modest. But, if you think long term – and in writing my book Inside Obama’s Brain I came to understand that Obama thinks long-term in a way that few recent presidents have done – then I would venture to bet that Monday’s shift on medical marijuana presages some fundamental changes in how America approaches its many drug problems in the years to come.

source:  The Guardian

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