The drug war is one of several areas where Obama has tried to move in the right direction, but his overall accomplishments over the last seven years have been disappointing. Far too little has changed. The White House has now announced that President Obama is reducing the sentences of sixty-one more individuals imprisoned due to drug laws, bringing the total to 248:
Today, the President announced 61 new grants of commutation to individuals serving years in prison under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws. More than one-third of them were serving life sentences. To date, the President has now commuted the sentences of 248 individuals – more than the previous six Presidents combined. And, in total, he has commuted 92 life sentences.
Underscoring his commitment not just to clemency, but to helping those who earn their freedom make the most of their second chance, the President will meet today with commutation recipients from both his Administration and the previous administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. During the meeting, the commutation recipients will discuss their firsthand experiences with the reentry process and ways that the process can be strengthened to give every individual the resources he or she needs to transition from prison and lead a fulfilling, productive life…
While this is welcome news, both liberal and libertarian commentators have expressed regrets that Obama hasn’t done more. Vox notes:
…the White House is still falling far short of the expectations it set for itself two years ago, when it encouraged thousands of prisoners to apply for shorter sentences. Then–Attorney General Eric Holder even went so far as to speculate that 10,000 prisoners might get their sentences reduced by the end of the Obama administration.
In that context, the 61 new commutations — and even the 248 total commutations — look different: a very small, incremental change that may signal the White House will do more in future but almost certainly won’t help it live up to its own expectations.
This comes not long after considerable discussion in the medical field regrading the negative impact of handling drug abuse as a criminal as opposed to a health matter, including in an article in The Lancet:
In a report published Thursday in The Lancet medical journal, Beyrer and an international team of researchers assessed the growing body of evidence for the public health impacts of programs such as opioid substitution therapy and needle exchange programs. In addition to criminal justice changes, the researchers made specific recommendations for policy makers to improve access to services that can reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C virus, also known as HCV.
“We think there is the first opportunity in a generation to have meaningful drug reform,” said Beyrer, who led the research for the report , which was commissioned by The Lancet and Johns Hopkins University
The report comes weeks before the United Nations General Assembly Special Session convenes on April 19 to discuss drug policy for the first time since 1998.
“There is pressure from a number of countries who feel the war on drugs has failed them, particularly Central and South America, where there is some of the worst drug-related violence,” Beyrer said. “We sought to review all the scientific evidence so it would be available to the U.N. member states when this is being debated.”
According to the report, injection drug use has led to increases in new HIV and HCV infections. Unsafe injection practices, such as sharing needles, are linked to about 30% of HIV transmission outside of sub-Saharan Africa. HCV transmission is also high among people who inject drugs, and a study in the United States found that more than half of people got infected in the first year they were injecting.
Hillary Clinton’s opposition to needle exchange programs, along with her hard line overall on the drug war, was an issue in the 2008 election. This year Bernie Sanders differs from his current opponents in going the furthest to oppose the continuation of the drug war:
Bernie Sanders’ campaign is now officially neck and neck with Hilary. Considered by many of us, to be a voice of progress and a champion for a new America. Much of his platform is forward-looking and based on reimagining what Americans should value in the future. To reinforce this outlook, many of his major policies address the redistribution of wealth and the reevaluation of some of the country’s long-standing campaigns—with the the War on Drugs being at the top of the list. Bango, Bernie!
Now pay close attention here, his mandates related to the War on Drugs are to treat and rehabilitate non-violent drug offenders rather than imprison them, to prevent large companies from further profiteering off of prisons and to legalize cannabis. If he is elected and this reform is passed by Congress, America would look very different—for the better, we like to think.
As much as Big Bernie is an advocate for policy change, he’s also focused on creating a major cultural shift. This is most strongly evidenced by his plan to create treatment facilities for non-violent drug offenders. If implemented correctly, the plan would encourage Americans to be more sympathetic towards those who have fallen victim to drug addiction, regardless of how or why. As Sanders sees it, it takes a community to help someone get back on their feet, and we need to be in the business of creating the infrastructure to make this happen…
There were also recent reports that a top Nixon aide had described the real reasons for the war on drugs:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper’s writer Dan Baum for the April cover story published Tuesday.
“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
This also fits into the Clinton model of expanding police power. I fear that if Clinton is elected we will slide backwards on continuing the disastrous drug war.