With the presidential election now less than a month away, Democratic candidate Barack Obama appears poised for victory, according to the most recent polls, though the race is far from over. From the beginning of the campaign, drug reform and drug policy have barely registered in the discourse, a state of affairs that has grown even more pronounced as the country slips into economic crisis and the news media focuses obsessively on the two major party candidates, their campaigns, and their responses to the crisis.
When it comes to the basic underpinnings of US drug policy, Sens. McCain and Obama are similar, and non-reformist. When it comes to some important details, however, differences do appear. The similarities are well demonstrated by the candidates' responses to a questionnaire from the International Association of Police Chiefs about their views on drug policy, among other issues. The question and their responses are worth reading in their entirety:
"Narcotics abuse and trafficking continues to be a problem that state, local, and tribal law enforcement officers face every day. How would you ensure that enforcement, prevention, and treatment programs receive equal resources and assistance to combat this growing problem?" asked the police chiefs.
Here is McCain's response:
"Illegal narcotics are a scourge that I have fought against for my entire legislative career, and I believe this fight must begin with prevention and enforcement. That is why I introduced the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1988 during my first term in the Senate and supported the Drug Free Borders Act of 1999, which authorized over $1 billion in funds to bolster our ability to prevent drugs from flowing through our borders and ports by improving technology and expanding our interdiction forces. As president, I would continue these efforts to ensure that our nation's children are protected from the influence of illegal drugs and that the drug peddlers are brought to justice for their crimes.
We must also realize that treatment is an important element of the mission to eradicate drug abuse. I supported the Second Chance Act, which authorized up to $360 million for violator reentry programs in 2009 and 2010. Last year, approximately 750,000 inmates were released from custody and returned to our communities, and typically one half will return to incarceration. The Second Chance Act funds programs that prepare prisoners for the transition from prison to society by providing job training, mentors, counseling, and more. Some programs report reducing recidivism rates by 50 percent. These programs could save American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. On average, the annual cost of incarcerating a prisoner exceeds $20,000 -- a number that increased sixfold between 1982 and 2002. As president, I believe we should support having parents with children in the home rather than in prison, former prisoners working and paying taxes, and citizens contributing to rather than taking from the community."
Here is Obama's response:
"Drug trafficking has long been a scourge on our society, and we need a national drug policy that focuses on tackling new threats with tough enforcement measures while also providing for robust prevention and treatment programs. All three of these components -- enforcement, prevention, and treatment -- are critical to a complete national drug control strategy, and each will be a key part of my agenda in an Obama-Biden administration. Funding the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne-JAG) Program is essential to avoid law enforcement layoffs and cuts to hundreds of antidrug and antigang efforts across the country. The administration has consistently proposed to cut or eliminate funding for the Byrne-JAG Program, which funds antidrug and antigang task forces across the country. Byrne-JAG also funds prevention and drug treatment programs that are critical to reducing US demand for drugs. Since 2000, this program has been cut more than 83 percent. These cuts threaten hundreds of multijurisdictional drug and gang task forces -- many that took years to create and develop. In my home state of Illinois, the Byrne grants have been used effectively to fund anti-meth task forces, and I have consistently fought for increased funding for this program. As president, I will restore funding to this critical program.
Finally, it's important that we address the crime and security problems in Latin America that have clear spillover effects in the United States in terms of gang activity and drug trafficking, which is why I introduced a comprehensive plan to promote regional security in the Americas in June. I will direct my attorney general and homeland security secretary to meet with their Latin American and Caribbean counterparts in the first year of my presidency to produce a regional strategy to combat drug trafficking, domestic and transnational gang activity, and organized crime. A hemispheric pact on security, crime, and drugs will permit the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean to advance serious and measurable drug demand reduction goals, while fostering cooperation on intelligence and investigating criminal activity. The United States will also work to strengthen civilian law enforcement and judicial institutions in the region by promoting anticorruption safeguards and police reform.
I will also support the efforts of our border states to foster cooperation and constructive engagement with the region. Arizona, for instance, has entered into agreements with its neighboring Mexican state, Sonora, to cooperate on fighting border violence and drug trafficking. These agreements have led to the training of Sonora detectives to investigate wire transfers used to pay smugglers in their state; improved radio communication; and better tracking of fugitive and stolen vehicles. The Arizona-Sonora partnership -- based on information sharing, technical assistance, and training -- provides an excellent model for regional cooperation on security issues. An Obama-Biden administration will support these initiatives and will work to integrate these efforts into the region's coordinated security pact."
While the Obama and McCain campaigns differ slightly in their emphases on different drug policy-related issues, there is more similarity than difference between them. Both refer to drugs as a "scourge," both brag about their anti-drug achievements, both support US drug war objectives across the border and overseas.
But even though there is much to unite Obama and McCain on overall agreement with drug prohibition, there are differences, too, some of them significant. While neither Obama nor McCain support marijuana decriminalization, Obama once did, until he reversed position during this year's election campaign. Whether Obama's flip-flop on decrim says more about his good initial instincts or his political opportunism is open to interpretation.
Similarly, as the Sentencing Project showed in a March report on the candidates' positions on drug and criminal justice policy, while McCain has supported mandatory minimum sentences for "drug dealers," Obama in 2003 told an NAACP debate he would "vote to abolish" mandatory minimums. By this year, Obama had slightly softened his stand on mandatory minimums, saying on his web site, "I will immediately review these sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the ineffective warehousing of nonviolent drug offenders."
Although Obama has tacked to the center (read: right) during the campaign season, other of his drug policy positions remain superior to McCain's. Obama supported lifting the ban on federal funding of needle exchanges; McCain did not address it. Obama explicitly supports drug courts; McCain does not, although he has stated he thinks too many drug users -- not drug dealers -- are in prison. Obama supported reducing the disparity between powder and crack cocaine offenders, even sponsoring a bill that would equalize sentences; McCain has not addressed the subject. Obama has said he would stop the raids on medical marijuana patients in California; McCain would not. Obama sees drug policy in the broader context of social justice; McCain has not opined on that idea.
Still, contrast Obama and McCain's drug policy positions with those of the Greens, the Libertarians, and the Ralph Nader campaign, and real differences emerge -- mainly between the bipartisan drug policy consensus and the three alternative campaigns.
For former US Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA), now running as the Green Party presidential candidate, the Green Party platform lays out a clear drug reform agenda:
Law enforcement is placing too much emphasis on drug-related and petty street crimes, and not enough on prosecution of corporate, white collar, and environmental crimes. Defrauding someone of their life savings is the same as robbery.
Any attempt to combat crime must begin with restoration of community. We encourage positive approaches that build hope, responsibility and a sense of belonging. Prisons should be the sentence of last resort, reserved for violent criminals. Those convicted of nonviolent offenses should be handled by other programs including halfway houses, electronic monitoring, work-furlough, community service and restitution programs. Substance abuse should be addressed as a medical problem requiring treatment, not imprisonment, and a failed drug test should not result in revocation of parole. Incarcerated prisoners of the drug war should be released to the above programs.
Repeal state "Three Strikes" laws. Restore judicial discretion in sentencing, as opposed to mandatory sentencing. Stop forfeiture of the property of unconvicted suspects. It is state piracy and denial of due process.
Implement a moratorium on prison construction. The funds saved should be used for alternatives to incarceration.
We call for decriminalization of victimless crimes. For example, the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
We call for legalization of industrial hemp and all its many uses.
We call for an end to the "war on drugs." We support expanded drug counseling and treatment.
Likewise, former US Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), running as the Libertarian Party candidate, also has a strong drug reform platform:
Individuals should be free to make choices for themselves and to accept responsibility for the consequences of the choices they make. No individual, group, or government may initiate force against any other individual, group, or government. Our support of an individual's right to make choices in life does not mean that we necessarily approve or disapprove of those choices.
We support the protections provided by the Fourth Amendment to be secure in our persons, homes, and property. Only actions that infringe on the rights of others can properly be termed crimes. We favor the repeal of all laws creating "crimes" without victims, such as the use of drugs for medicinal or recreational purposes.
Government exists to protect the rights of every individual including life, liberty and property. Criminal laws should be limited to violation of the rights of others through force or fraud, or deliberate actions that place others involuntarily at significant risk of harm. Individuals retain the right to voluntarily assume risk of harm to themselves.... We oppose reduction of constitutional safeguards of the rights of the criminally accused.
American foreign policy should seek an America at peace with the world and its defense against attack from abroad. We would end the current US government policy of foreign intervention, including military and economic aid. We recognize the right of all people to resist tyranny and defend themselves and their rights. We condemn the use of force, and especially the use of terrorism, against the innocent, regardless of whether such acts are committed by governments or by political or revolutionary groups. [Ed: Presumably portions of this plank can be taken to have bearing on the US-imposed international drug war.]
Like the Greens and the Libertarians, the Ralph Nader campaign has a solid drug reform platform, as suggested by its title, "The Failed War on Drugs:"
The Nader campaign supports ending the war on drugs and replacing it with a health-based treatment and prevention-focused approach. Enforcement of drug laws is racially unfair, and dissolution of the drug war would begin to make the types of changes needed in our criminal justice system.
According to the federal Household Survey of drug use, "most current illicit drug users are white. There were an estimated 9.9 million whites (72 percent of all users), 2.0 million blacks (15 percent), and 1.4 million Hispanics (10 percent) who were current illicit drug users in 1998." And yet, blacks constitute 36.8% of those arrested for drug violations, over 42% of those in federal prisons for drug violations. African-Americans comprise almost 58% of those in state prisons for drug felonies; Hispanics account for 20.7%.
The drug war has failed -- we spend nearly $50 billion annually on the drug war and yet problems related to drug abuse continue to worsen. We need to acknowledge that drug abuse is a health problem with social and economic consequences. Therefore, the solutions are -- public health, social services, economic development and tender supportive time with addicts in our depersonalized society. Law enforcement should be at the edges of drug control, not at the center. It is time to bring some currently illegal drugs within the law by regulating, taxing and controlling them. Ending the drug war will dramatically reduce street crime, violence and homicides related to underground drug dealing.
But also like the Greens and the Libertarians, Nader has virtually no chance of winning any state. Most recent presidential campaign polls don't even bother to include anyone besides Obama and McCain, and the most recent poll that included the three minor party candidates, late July Angus-Reid poll, found McKinney, Barr, and Nader combined for only 10% of the vote. Nader polled 6%, Barr 3%, and McKinney 1%.
Still, drug reformers must once again face that perennial question: Should I vote for the major party candidate who is less bad on drug policy, or should I vote for a candidate that reflects my views on this issue? Not surprisingly, there is a variety of views.
Veteran drug reformer Kevin Zeese acted as a Nader spokesman during the 2004 campaign and ran for the US Senate in Maryland as the nominee of both the Green and the Libertarian parties. He still believes third party politics is the answer, he told the Chronicle.
"Until reformers have the courage to vote for what we want why will anyone else? Neither duopoly party will end the drug war -- they are not even discussing it," he said. "The better duopolist picked a leading drug war hawk as his vice president. No doubt many will hope that Biden will pull a Nixon goes to China and reverse himself -- but that is really blind hope."
Drug reformers, especially those in non-battleground states, should send the major parties a message, said Zeese. "Voting for Obama is a true wasted vote in a non-battleground state," he said. "We know how the Electoral College will vote in 40 states. If you disagree with Obama or McCain -- why vote for them in those states? It is important for these parties to see that people are not satisfied with them. If you vote for Obama or McCain when you disagree with them then you are sending a signal of agreement. Why should he change? If you vote against them, they know they have to change in order to earn your vote."
Veteran drug reformer Cliff Thornton, who ran for the governorship of Connecticut on a drug reform platform as a Green Party candidate in 2006, agrees with Zeese. "McCain will just be more of the same, and I don't really know what Obama will do," he said. "Let's just note that Joe Biden was one of the architects of mandatory minimums. If Obama wins, I'm afraid we will have to wait for the next election to see any progress. We need to be supporting alternatives, and a vote for a Green is vote for a Green," he said.
But for Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance Network, the lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance, the differences between Obama and McCain on drug policy, while marginal, are significant. "In terms of reducing the harms associated with both drugs and drug prohibition, the difference between Obama and McCain is big," Piper argued. "Obama supports repealing the federal syringe ban, eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, reforming mandatory minimums, and shifting resources from incarceration to treatment. McCain hasn't said anything major one way or the other about syringe exchange programs or the crack/powder disparity from what I can tell, but has publicly made fun of medical marijuana patients and introduced legislation to essentially ban methadone."
While conceding that it is difficult to predict how either Obama or McCain would govern, Piper argued that an Obama presidency is much more likely to see drug reform. "In terms of seeing a wide range of reforms at the federal level over the next eight years, it seems far more likely to happen under Obama than McCain," he said.
Not likely, retorted Zeese. "Biden will be whispering drug war nonsense in his ears, and his past use of marijuana and cocaine will be reasons that stop him from doing anything sensible," he predicted. "The best we can hope for from Obama is benign neglect. There will be many other domestic and international crises for them to deal with so drug policy will not be high on their agenda -- that is good news -- because Biden is the source of most of what is wrong with modern drug policy. Hopefully, he is kept busy doing something else."
And, said Piper, Obama is not talking about ending drug prohibition, dismantling the prison-industrial complex, and putting violent drug trafficking organizations out of business. "Only Barr, Nader, and McKinney are talking about major reform. They're speaking for the 76% of Americans who say the war on drugs has failed. But they've been excluded from the debates and are largely being ignored by the media. I know a lot of drug policy reformers who are voting for one of them. I know a lot, probably more, who are voting for Obama, and some who are voting for McCain."
Who drug reformers should vote for remains a tricky, personal question, said Piper. "There are a lot of variables to consider, including weighing the possibility of important, short-term incremental gains against the need for long-term systematic change; pondering the question of whether or not change on the margin facilitates or obstructs major change; deciding if the drug war should be the only issue you vote on or just one of many; thinking about the political and cultural changes that have to occur to bring down prohibition and how this election fits into that; considering what state you live in; and wrestling with your conscience," he said, ticking off the issues confronting drug reform voters. "I don't think there is one right answer."
(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)