Why Obama Won't Be the One to End the War on Drugs

In New York magazine, Benjamin Wallace-Wells has a long article about the failure of the War on Drugs, in which he says, "Without really acknowledging it, we are beginning to experiment with a negotiated surrender." This is in reference to the recently passed marijuana legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington, which will likely be followed by other states in upcoming elections. Hanging over these policy changes is the still-to-be-determined reaction of the Obama administration, which hasn't yet said whether it plans to send DEA agents to crack down on the businesses these laws allow for, or the growing operations they'll produce. And I'm beginning to suspect that the administration will try to set some kind of policy course intended to be as low-key and neutral as possible, neither giving the two states the green light to proceed as their new laws envision, nor embarking on some kind of dramatic and visible crackdown.

Why? Because that's what Barack Obama appears to want. One of Andrew Sullivan's readers noted a video from 2007 in which candidate Obama evaded and hedged in his response to a question about legalization; the reader said, "the sense I got was that whatever Obama's actual position on marijuana is, he's not about to let that be the issue that he wastes political capital on. That's not going to be the issue that prevents him from becoming president and fixing everything else that he cares more about." That sounds about right to me: While Obama may believe that the War has been a failure and it's absurd to lock up hundreds of thousands of people for possessing, buying, or selling small amounts of marijuana, it just isn't all that high on his priority list. If making a major policy change is risky, he's not going to bother. On the other hand, he doesn't want to alienate the 50 percent of the country that now supports legalization, many of whom are his staunch supporters, so his preferred outcome would be that no one pays much attention to the issue for the next four years.

Obama has been a continuing disappointment to his supporters who favor legalization, but there's a kind of inverse Nixon-to-China thing going on with him. As the first president who admits to being an enthusiastic pot smoker in his youth (and of course the first black president), he'll be the last person to begin the dismantling of the War on Drugs. But maybe, bit by bit, it'll happen without him.

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