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Obama on Drugs

Tags Free MarketsInterventionism

04/22/2013Mark Thornton

President Barack Obama is famous for many things, including two best-selling autobiographical books. In those books, he openly admitted to using illegal drugs as a young man, specifically marijuana. So, one would think that he would be amenable to reforming drug laws and sentencing guidelines, or even legalizing marijuana.

Instead he has been two-faced on the issue. He suggests that things can be better managed and that drug prohibition has certain unintended consequences, but when it comes to actual policy and action, his administration has shown little open-mindedness when it comes to reform.

The two areas of major concern are his administration’s treatment of medical marijuana dispensaries and its statements regarding the continuation of prosecutions for federal marijuana violations in Washington and Colorado, where voters have essentially nullified marijuana prohibition. Even compared to the Bush administration, Obama has stepped up the battle against medical marijuana dispensaries.

In clarifying his position, Obama claims that he does not want to waste resources on prosecuting marijuana consumers, for medical purposes or otherwise, in states where it is not considered illegal. However, this still means that people will have to venture into the black market, at least once a month and face all the risks and costs associated with those trips.

Picking on sick people and docile potheads is no way to win friends and influence people. If Obama insists on extending the federal war against marijuana in Colorado and Washington, then he risks alienating the people. Indeed if the people should turn to jury nullification, where juries fail to convict those who have clearly committed only a victimless “crime,” it could ignite an uprising across the country as voters and juries nullify all things “federal.” This would be a big blow against his legacy.

Why would he risk his legacy for such little gain?

A large group of more than 100 stars and celebrities have come forward with a letter to the president asking him to focus on changing drug laws. The group consists of people like Ron Howard, Jennifer Hudson, Scarlett Johansson, Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj, Susan Sarandon, Will Smith and Lil Wayne.

The letter was also signed by civil rights leaders. Drug laws are thought to directly or indirectly result in more than half the prison population in the U.S. and there is great concern that minorities are targeted by police and prosecutors.

The group was organized by Rap magnate Russell Simmons, the cofounder of Def Jam, the hip-hop record label. Simmons said that the time was right to replace prison sentences with education, intervention, and rehabilitation.

It is critical that we change both the way we think about drug laws in this country and how we generate positive solutions that leave a lasting impact on rebuilding our communities.1

Of course the political views of this group of people, in particular, are no good basis for public policy. If Hollywood and preachers were in charge, one can only imagine how zany our society would be. However, anytime somebody prominent shines a light on the evils of the war on drugs, it should be viewed as an opportunity for reform.

Should President Obama ignite an even more horrific war on drugs, à la Ronald Reagan, or should he take a different path? Would liberalizing the war on drugs enhance his reputation and his legacy or would it hurt his legacy as well as the remainder of his second administration?

President Jimmy Carter tried to do the right thing with a common sense approach to drugs and it backfired and tarnished both his image and legacy. It even helped push the evangelical Christians into the GOP. However, his reforms never really got implemented because of a scandal involving the Director of the White House Office of Drug Abuse Policy. As a result, no benefits from reform were ever produced.

First, what would liberalizing drug laws look like? The federal government would decriminalized drugs and accept states’ rights to legalize marijuana. In other words, there would be few if any people going to jail because of the war on drugs. Possibly a half a million nonviolent offenders would be reunited with their families and return to the workforce. The harder drugs could be regulated, taxed, and violators might be forced to accept counseling, treatment, and other restrictions. Restrictions on production and distribution would also be reduced.

This is not drug legalization, where illegal drugs would begin to be treated like any dangerous commodity, like large machinery, automobiles, and alcohol. Decriminalization would be an improvement in many areas. As I have previously written:

Drug prohibition is a burden on taxpayers. It is a burden on government budgets. It is a burden on the criminal justice system. It is a burden on the health care system. The economic crisis has intensified the pain from all these burdens. Legalization reduces or eliminates all of these burdens. It should be no surprise that alcohol prohibition was repealed at the deepest depths of the Great Depression. 2

Decriminalization of drugs was tried in Portugal—and it worked! In 2001, the country had the highest rate of heroin addiction and drug-related deaths from AIDS despite spending increasing amounts of money on convictions and incarcerations. In desperation they passed a decriminalization law that required people arrested for possession to possibly seek counseling or pay a fine. Social indicators associated with illegal drugs have all noticeably improved as a result. Most experts credit decriminalization for these across-the-board improvements. 3

I mentioned in the previous quotation that it was not a surprise that Prohibition was repealed during the Great Depression—the government needed the money! However, you might be surprised to learn that repeal was a major reason for FDR’s enduring popularity.4

Think about it. America had 25 percent unemployment and no prospects for new jobs. The stock market had lost 90 percent of its value and the banks were closing all around. The murder rate had doubled and violent crime was up significantly. Gangs and organized crime ruled the streets. A person probably would not be able to afford a beer even if he could find one. The only thing generally available was “rotgut” whiskey. This was truly the most depressing time in American history.

In 1932, Roosevelt switched from being a “Dry” to a “Wet” in order to win the Democratic Party nomination and then easily beat Hebert Hoover for the presidency. He made his campaign promise of repeal his number one priority.

Roosevelt was inaugurated on March 4, 1933. After dealing with the banking crisis and the budget during his first week on the job, on March 13 he called on Congress to repeal Prohibition. On March 23, he signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, which legalized the sale in the United States of beer with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent. He wasted no time: he signed it one day after Congress passed it. He said with great élan, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”5

The repeal of Prohibition was the real reason for FDR’s popularity. Historians credit the New Deal and World War II, but both were negative. The New Deal did not get us out of the Great Depression (neither did WWII) and WWII did not improve living standards, but instead led to massive deaths and destruction.

With Repeal achieved, the entire alcohol industry, including distilleries, breweries, and wineries, were back at work. Workers were rehired. Input suppliers like farmers could feel the surge in demand for their products and services.

Crime dropped; with the murder rate falling precipitously back to its pre-Prohibition level. Violent crime and crime in general dropped significantly. The source of money for bribery, corruption, and street gangs largely evaporated.

All levels of government (federal, state, county, and local) reinstituted taxes, licenses, and fees on the alcohol industry, but prices for consumers still dropped substantially. Beer was once again available and whiskey became drinkable again.

The people were happy for the first time in almost four years. Happy Days Are Here Again was FDR’s campaign theme song, and now it is the Democratic Party theme song, but few remember it was written for a movie to celebrate the imminent repeal of Prohibition. The song would appear in 42 other movies during the 1930s.

President Obama should learn this lesson from FDR. Freedom and prosperity are what makes people happy. The cause of FDR’s popularity may have been obscured by court historians, but picking on sick and dying people and prosecuting potheads is no way to build your legacy.

In fact, the American people now favor the legalization of marijuana by a margin of 52 to 45 or 54 percent.6 Young adults favor legalization by 65 percent and seniors are the only age group who clearly opposes legalization. This indicates that a supermajority will favor legalization in the future. Does Obama want to be known as the president that ended the horrible war on pot, or perpetuated it?

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Contact Mark Thornton

Mark Thornton is the Peterson-Luddy Chair in Austrian Economics and a Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute. He is the book review editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, and has authored seven books and is a frequent guest on national radio shows.