Obama’s New War on Drugs Is the Old War on Drugs

Don't be fooled by the Obama administration's recently revised drug policy.

Given the way things have been going lately, you might figure that the 42-year-old War on Drugs, hallelujah, is over. Nationally, we’ve seen a rebirth of the psychedelic movement, a shift in public perception of marijuana, and, as proven by the High Times Cannabis Cup, weed is very much legal in Colorado (and Washington). Even in Philly, we’ve got hundreds of people toking up at the Liberty Bell at each Smokedown Prohibition with little to no trouble, despite the efforts of whiney YouTube users armed with iPhones alone—not to mention that whole de-facto marijuana decriminalization thing.

But most recently, and perhaps most interestingly, all this drug fervor has provoked a response from the Obama administration, which last week released a revised National Drug Control Strategy that’s been touted as a substantial shift in business as usual. We’re talking moves like seeing drug use as a “public health issue” that we can’t “arrest our way out of,” and focusing on “treatment for individuals with substance use disorders” and other “alternatives to incarceration.” You can almost hear the sound of celebratory bong rips being prepared around the country.

Not for nothing, guys, but you might want to save the packs. While on some level it’s notable to hear the Obama administration, in a small way, step away from the “tough on crime” stance that virtually every president since Nixon has adopted, the whole report, which is not an actual change in policy but a proposed change in ideological approach, smacks terribly of lip service to voters.

At best, we’re looking at a baby step that appears to be not even on par with Obama’s “symbolic endorsement” of gay marriage.

Essentially, we’re looking at a shift from forcing substance users into an overburdened prison system to forcing substance users (a.k.a. “people”) into soon-to-be-overburdened drug-abuse programs. And that’s required treatment that the convicted must pay for.

What’s worse, there even seems to be lip service to the lip service. As much as the new drug policy touts an approach centered on treatment and prevention, there’s no doubt that enforcement and interdiction will remain a huge force in the newly rebranded Drug War. In fact, the Obama administration is allocating $9.5 billion for those purposes alone—up from $9.3 billion this year and $9.4 billion in 2012.

And that’s saying nothing of the proposed refocusing on preventative education in young people. The program touts a need for “policies, programs, and messages that help youth abstain from drugs and alcohol” in the “home, in school, among peers, at workplaces, and throughout the community.” Admirable, but—and correct me if I’m wrong—doesn’t that sound an awful lot like the ill-fated DARE program? You know, that federally sponsored drug education program that cost $439 million in 2000 alone and actually managed to increase drug use among young people due to its poor design and implementation.

Legalization of drugs, or even decriminalization, seems to be a long way off. Instead, we’ll force offenders into treatment programs that make no distinction between drug users and drug abusers, continue to ignore our rampant prescription drug abuse epidemic, and otherwise throw money at the same old problem we’ve been creating for ourselves since Nixon decided potheads were the enemy. And yet somehow the drug users are still the bad guys.

So, yeah, it’s still business as usual. Just a different sign out front.