Bill Clinton: The Drug War "Hasn't Worked"

World Economic Forum / Flickr

Noted marijuana user Bill Clinton doesn't think the drug war is working.

This isn't as radical sounding as it looks—Bill Clinton is only expressing regret about a particular set of operations run by his administration—but it's still a noteworthy change of sentiment from a president who greatly expanded the war on drugs:

“What I tried to do was to focus on every aspect of the problem. I tried to empower the Colombians for example to do more militarily and police-wise because I thought that they had to. Thirty percent of their country was in the hands of the narcotraffickers,” Clinton says in the film, which is available free online. […]

Clinton later says: “Well obviously, if the expected results was that we would eliminate serious drug use in America and eliminate the narcotrafficking networks — it hasn’t worked.”

At the moment, of course, there are serious, state-based efforts to end the government's prohibition on marijuana. Both Washington state and Colorado, for example, have passed laws to legalize the drug and treat it like alcohol. What's more, a flood of surveys show wide public support for changing the status quo; a recent survey from Public Policy Polling shows marijuana legalization with Hillary Clinton-levels of popularity. A second survey from Gallup and USA shows more modest support for legalization—50 percent say yes, 48 percent say no—but an overwhelming 63 percent say the issue should be left to the states.

Unfortunately, this sea change in sentiment has yet to penetrate the federal government. President Obama remains committed to prohibition—as are key officials like Joe Biden—and his administration is mulling legal action against Colorado and Washington.

Obviously, Obama must enforce the law, but it's hard to understand his inflexibility on the issue. Is he worried what will happen if kids get access to weed? If so, he should keep in mind that—in addition to neighborhood stoners—the ranks of marijuana smokers includes at least three presidents, one vice president, twelve governors, seven senators, nine house members, untold numbers of business people, lawyers, and other professionals, and one of the world's greatest Olympians. It's not a bad list.

More seriously, the administration's stance on prohibition is standing in the way of efforts to reduce the burden of marijuana arrests on the criminal justice system. Indeed, if Obama wanted to show that he valued the overwhelming support of African Americans and Latinos—who are arrested for marijuana possession at rates far disproportionate to their use—he could do worse than direct resources away from enforcement.

President Obama must know that he's on the wrong side of the public (and common sense) on this issue. It's up to voters and activists to push him to act on it.