Obama’s Demented Drug Policy

Posted: April 24th, 2009 by Militant Libertarian

by Radley Balko

As he leaves on a trip to Mexico, the president looks poised to continue the same ruinous drug policies and the same failing tactics in the war on drugs.

When Barack Obama visits Mexico today, the drug war, and the violence it has spawned south of the border, is expected to dominate the agenda. Since 2006, more than 10,000 people have been murdered in Mexico as a direct consequence of the drug trade. This bloody outbreak began when, with the blessing of and funding from the U.S. government, Mexican President Felipe Calderon ordered the Mexican military to aggressively crack down on the drug cartels. Such crackdowns often ratchet up the level of violence, as the elimination of one major drug distributor provokes those who remain to war over his territory. That’s a pattern as old and predictable as Prohibition itself, yet politicians never seem to learn.

The best solution to what’s plaguing Mexico right now is the one topic that will almost assuredly be off the table: legalizing marijuana.

Last month, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Mexico, she expressed gave concern over the escalating violence… and then heaped praise on Calderon’s crackdown, promising to support it with more funding and more military hardware. Obama appears poised to say much the same thing. According to a recent preview of his trip in The Washington Post, the president is expected to promise swifter delivery of drug-war aid and increased efforts by the U.S. to stop the flow of American weapons to Mexico. But the best solution to what’s plaguing Mexico right now is the one topic that will almost assuredly be off the table: legalizing marijuana. Marijuana makes up 60 to 70 percent of the Mexican drug trade. Lifting prohibitions on it in the United States would eradicate a major source of funds for the cartels.

But Obama has little patience for such talk. We saw this at the now-infamous (at least on the Internet) town-hall meeting last month, where the president was asked whether he would consider legalizing marijuana to help the ailing economy. The question was the top vote-getter on a White House Web site set up in the spirit of making the president accessible to the public. But Obama dismissed it with a one-word answer, then derided the very online community that raised half a billion dollars for his campaign as a bunch of half-baked morons.

The incident offended many former Obama activists, yet other supporters have chided those upset by his answer by pointing out that Obama has never supported marijuana legalization. That’s true. But it also misses the point. The drug-reform community rallied behind Obama’s candidacy because in the past he has taken thoughtful, nuanced positions on the issue. Consider this video, from 2004:

Obama’s curt response last month was a striking departure from that video. It didn’t take long for him to go from a thoughtful drug-war critic to a typical Beltway drug warrior.

To answer the question Obama batted away, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that legalizing all drugs would produce a net boon of $77 billion per year to government alone, much of it in savings on enforcement and incarceration. That’s not accounting for the money from the sale of drugs that, under a legalized system, would go to the above-ground economy instead of to cartels and crime syndicates. Miron estimated in a 2005 study that if we were to only legalize marijuana, the savings to government would be $10 to 14 billion, a figure endorsed by 530 other economists. Obama’s callous dismissal of the question—as if serious people didn’t even require an explanation—wasn’t warranted.

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