New Administration Should Relax Drug Laws

Although the economy dominates our political dialogue, now is as good a time as ever to step back and evaluate which issues the new administration should be addressing in the coming months. From health care to energy reform, Afghanistan to Gaza, President Barack Obama has assumed office at a time of unprecedented complexity and is tasked with finding solutions to problems that have no clear antidotes.

With these challenges at the helm, it is easy to overlook a long-standing, yet underreported, quagmire that has taken a back seat to more pressing matters. The policy I refer to is none other than the ever-persistent, yet unequivocally failed, war on drugs.

It is true, the war on drugs must not be brought up in polite company. Anything that might be construed as supportive in any way of drugs is not suitable for proper conversation in most circumstances.

However, with leadership from the president, this sorry trend need not be irreversible. One of the reasons Obama was able to attract so many to his candidacy is because he exudes a refreshing sense of frankness and rationality, even when dealing with issues that are widely regarded as politically toxic.

Whether it was a blunt and unparalleled manifesto on race relations, or a candid discussion of his youthful experimentation with marijuana and cocaine, Obama has never shied away from addressing matters that every self-aware American grapples with, but politicians have traditionally swept under the rug as they smile and nod. It was for this reason that many of Obama’s supporters were confident over the course of the campaign that he would address the issue of drug policy in a similarly evenhanded, if not overtly confrontational, manner.

Even in the early weeks of the administration, several subtle but significant changes have been made in the area of drug policy, both domestically and abroad. Obama has already broken rank with the stubborn regressiveness of the previous administration, whose rigid adherence to a dogmatic anti-drug philosophy defied common sense.

As of this week, the United States now supports needle-exchange programs for HIV-positive addicts through a United Nations-sponsored global AIDS prevention initiative.

In addition to reaffirming opposition to federal raids on medical marijuana clinics in states that have approved its use, Obama has also signaled his intention to nominate Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Commonly known as “drug czar,” Kerlikowske is fit for the position that in the past has been marred by zealotry. In a stark departure from the “czars” of the past three administrations, who were all prohibitionist hard-liners and, in the case of Bush, propagandists, Kerlikowske has been a proven reformer in Seattle. He respected the will of the city’s voters when the passage of a 2004 ballot initiative required that non-violent marijuana offenses be of the lowest police priority.

Seattle now has among the fewest marijuana-related arrests in the nation. As chief of police, he has presided over an annual “Hempfest” in Seattle during which participants openly smoke marijuana in the streets and police officers are instructed to perform a public safety role without making any marijuana-related arrests. Upon announcement of his nomination, advocates of marijuana policy reform called Obama’s pick “a blessing.”

As Michael Phelps lost his Kellogg’s sponsorship and faced criminal charges for being photographed smoking a bong, we should take this opportunity to start changing the national dialogue on drug policy.

From the dogmatic, knee-jerk hysterics of years past, we can slowly but surely move toward rationality and pragmatism in the Obama mold. We must recognize that Phelps’ unfortunate predicament is representative of nationwide epidemic, not of marijuana use, but of the profoundly absurd bureaucratic reaction to it.

It is quite possible that Phelps will be what it takes to facilitate an honest conversation on whether or not personal drug use by adults should be treated in such a disproportionately raucous manner, and whether or not law enforcement resources would be better directed elsewhere.

Here’s to hoping that the progress Obama has already made in this area will spill over into our national discourse and Phelps can once again represent our country on the world stage, regardless of what he chooses to inhale.

Sources: seattletimes.com, BBC Radio, bloomberg.com