An interview with Barack Obama is the centre piece of this month's Rolling Stone magazine. Unsuprisingly, given the the magazine's youth culture niche and long history as vocal critics drug war (see brilliant feature articles here, here and here), they hit the likely next US president with a serious question about its failure and what he plans to do about it:
RollingStone: The War on Drugs has cost taxpayers $500 billion since 1973. Nearly 500,000 people are behind bars on drug charges today, yet drugs are as available as ever. Do you plan to continue the War on Drugs, or will you make some significant change in course?
Obama: "Anybody who sees the devastating impact of the drug trade in the inner cities, or the methamphetamine trade in rural communities, knows that this is a huge problem. I believe in shifting the paradigm, shifting the model, so that we focus more on a public-health approach. I can say this as an ex-smoker: We've made enormous progress in making smoking socially unacceptable. You think about auto safety and the huge success we've had in getting people to fasten their seat belts.
The point is that if we're putting more money into education, into treatment, into prevention and reducing the demand side, then the ways that we operate on the criminal side can shift. I would start with nonviolent, first-time drug offenders. The notion that we are imposing felonies on them or sending them to prison, where they are getting advanced degrees in criminality, instead of thinking about ways like drug courts that can get them back on track in their lives — it's expensive, it's counterproductive, and it doesn't make sense."
The language of Obama's response is very positive - first up he is talking about change, more significantly, a paradigm shift towards a greater focus on public health, implicitly away from the criminal justice focus of the past four decades 'war on drugs'. Interestingly he uses as examples of policy success; smoking and seatbelts, where sensible regulation (using civil rather than criminal law) combined with public health education has delivered remarkable outcomes. He does not use criminal justice crackdown examples, and the tough punitive language of zero tolerance, and rhetoric of war that has dominated the political discourse on drug policy in the US is conspicuously absent.
The policy positions he actually identifies address some of the more egregious negative outcomes of the drug war's long term systemic failure - namely the horrendous human and financial cost of mass incarceration of non violent drug offenders. 'It's expensive, it's counterproductive and it doesn't make sense' he concludes, hopefully - even if he is not saying it at this stage in his political journey - an analysis he will be able to apply to entire prohibitionist paradigm. We wouldn't realistically expect him to advocate for, or even bring up as a debate, the idea of progressive moves towards legal regulation and control of drug production and supply at this stage, but he has shown a willingness to think, to change and to lead.
As long as that other bloke doesn't win in November.
see also: Barack Obama supports cannabis decriminnalisation