Wars end.

By Jonathan Bradley in Seattle, WA

29 July 2010


Get Your War On cartoon about the War on Terror and War on Drugs

Cartoon from Get Your War On by David Rees

Even if Barack Obama has failed to enacted cap and trade legislation to fight global warming, close down Guantanamo Bay, or make much progress on the war in Afghanistan, the days he could credibly be accused of running a do-nothing administration have long since passed. But while his stimulus package and high profile reforms of health care and financial regulation have captured headlines, just as important have been some of his lower-key, less well publicised attempts to curb some of America's worst ideas.

We saw an example of this today when Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, a bill designed to wind back one of the less rational aspects of the U.S.'s ill-fated War on Drugs.

Currently, under American law, anyone caught with five grams of crack cocaine receives a mandatory five year prison sentence, while it takes 500 grams of the drug in powder form to attract the same penalty. The disparity is absurd; it is the same drug in both cases, and is equally harmful to the user. The biggest difference between crack cocaine and the regular sort is that black folks tend to use the former while whites tend to use the latter. The result is that African Americans get imprisoned far more often than white people for using exactly the same drug.

Once Obama signs the bill into law, this disparity will be reduced a little: users will need to be caught with 28 grams of crack before receiving the mandatory sentence. There's still a pointless, unfair, and discriminatory difference in the penalties the two forms of the drug attract, but it's nonetheless a step in the right direction. By making the law a bit less discriminatory in its treatment of African Americans, it  will hopefully reduce the gulf of opportunity between the races in the United States.

And it's not the only way Obama has been rethinking a War on Drugs that has done little but fill prisons, sew misery, and make criminals out of minor offenders. Soon after he took office he instructed federal law enforcement to cease arresting users of medical marijuana in states that had legalised it, and the National Drug Control Strategy released this past May has been praised for focusing on treating addiction and being more effective in its approach to drugs imported from abroad. 

Obama's drug policy has so far failed to attract the alarmist accusations of being weak on crime that usually haunt politicians who try to make laws less harsh and more effective. In part this has because he's pursued uncontroversial reforms that few people are interested in mobilising against. It's tough to argue that cocaine becomes one hundred times more dangerous when it's in crack form, or that the Feds should be busting terminally ill patients using a treatment their state has legalised. But it may also be that Americans, usually a people eager to keep government out of their private lives, are beginning to tire of their country's heavy handed drug policy. New Jersey is now the 14th state to legalise marijuana for medical use, and this November, Californians will consider Initiative 19, which seeks to make the drug legal — period. It will be particularly interesting to observe Obama's stance if that initiative passes. (Even if California were to legalise the drug, it would remain prohibited at a national level, and federal laws override state ones.)

Whether in the case of the long overdue reduction in sentencing disparity or California's unexpectedly realistic legalisation attempt, this isn't about letting slackers and stoners have a good time. It's about not saddling mostly law-abiding citizens with a criminal record that greatly reduces their chances of getting good jobs and becoming productive members of society. The administration's drug policy is a very real way Obama is improving American quality of life. In a scene in HBO's police drama "The Wire," an officer laments that the War on Drugs is misnamed because "wars end." Maybe this war will after all.

Tags: Cocaine, Crime, Initiative 19, Marijuana, Sentencing Disparity, War On Drugs

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