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Obama’s newly released strategy for drug policy is neither new nor a strategy

Last week the Obama administration unveiled its 2012 Drug Control Strategy, touting it as a new way forward for U.S. drug policy. Yet, the administration’s report dismisses the possibility of legalizing drugs while crediting its own strategy over the last few years for substantial progress in dealing with drugs. But as Reason’s Mike Riggs notes, if zero-tolerance laws, increased workplace drug testing, and the revival of a ridiculous anti-drug ad campaign is progress and symbolic of a new way forward, than progress means regression and a new way forward means status quo.

The truth of the matter is this document is nothing more than a marketing tool.  As Criminal Justice Policy Foundation President Eric E. Sterling – who has arguably been intimately involved in drug law and policy issues more so than anybody – points out:

The National Drug Control Strategy has not been any kind of strategy for many years. However the occasion of its release provides an annual public relations opportunity for the Administration to utter sound bites that convey both the necessary alarm at the terrible problem and the necessary reassurance that the Administration is taking “leadership” in carrying out the appropriate measures to address the problem.

Undeterred by the lack of any real strategy contained in the report, bureaucrats over at the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) took the occasion to congratulate themselves in producing a document that “charts a new course in drug policy” and will lead to fewer arrests and more treatment. The War on Drugs is over, so they say. And how do we know this? Well, because the new Obama drug strategy doesn’t contain the phrase War on Drugs even once.

However, if the War on Drugs is truly over, drug raids that all too often claim the lives of suspects, innocents, and law enforcement officials would then come to a halt. Yet, recent victims include a New Hampshire police chief killed during a drug raid gone wrong earlier this month and 20 year-old Wendell Allen, shot and killed by police in New Orleans despite being unarmed in a pot raid back in March. Incidents like these can be found by performing a simple thirty-second Google search. ONDCP can call it what they like, but the War on Drugs continues.

Nor has Obama’s supposed “new way forward” drug policy had any appreciable effect on arrests for drug offenses. In 2008, there were an estimated 1,702,537 arrests for drug offenses. Under Obama’s drug policy, both 2009 and 2010 saw an ever so slight decrease in drug arrests, down to approximately 1,663,582 and 1,638,846 respectively – a paltry reduction of 3.7% of arrests over two years. While there are technically fewer arrests, a reduction this miniscule cannot be seen as anything but sheer happenstance.

Therein lies the problem with the sort of middle path position that decries the War on Drugs, yet is opposed to legalization. The way that current drug policy is enforced cannot actually be reformed in any meaningful way so long as the criminal prohibition of drugs remains. As such, there’s no reason to expect anything to significantly change regarding the way police enforce drug laws. It simply boils down to the incentive problem explained by public choice theory.

This middle path position – not full on drug war and certainly not legalization – believes government coercion can be utilized as a tool to enforce current drug laws in targeted and selective ways that will only be applied to the most predatory and violent drug enterprises and chronic addicts who bring about negative social costs, like crime and disorder. This position holds that law enforcement should not be concerned with casual drug users and non-violent, low-level dealers. But this cannot succeed on a large-scale approach, as it will fall victim to the incentive problem; at best it may work in limited, particularized instances.

As I’ve previously written, just because the intentions behind a law call for it to be implemented in a specific manner, doesn’t mean it actually will. In passing the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Congress intended that the mandatory minimum sentences therein only be applied to aggravated leaders of drug businesses; however, the law is used to charge anyone with the requisite amount of drugs to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence, regardless of the offender’s role in a drug enterprise. The incentives all flow towards prosecutors in filing these charges against any offender arrested with the threshold amount of drugs that allow for a mandatory minimum charge.

Not to be outdone, the incentives law enforcement officials have to make arrests for drug offenses and fill the criminal justice pipeline with drug cases are enormous. Huge sums of federal anti-drug grant money exist for police departments to line up and claim. “The more arrests and drug seizures a department can claim, the stronger its application for those grants.” Drug arrests are then prioritized to the afterthought of policing violent crimes that actually have real victims – leading to ever more drug arrests. The money obtained from these grants (as well as from civil asset forfeiture laws) is typically used to buy expensive and unnecessary military grade equipment for SWAT teams to conduct aggressive and sometimes deadly drug raids. I mean, if you’ve got all this fancy paramilitary equipment, better use it – right?

No matter how benevolent the intentions behind Obama’s drug control strategy may be, these incentives – for police and prosecutors alike – are simply too great to overcome absent legalizing drugs. And since the entire political left virtually rejects public choice as a threat to their worldview, this problem is unlikely to even be acknowledged by those currently with the power and influence to change things.

However the Obama administration and its middle path supporters wish to characterize its drug control strategy, whether “a new way forward” or “charting a new course in drug policy”, it most certainly is neither.

Cross posted at

Image via The Daily Dish

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