The United States will enter the 46th year of its War on Drugs in 2017. Since 1971, the harshly prohibitive American drug policy of Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton has helped to not only fuel the current system of mass incarceration in the U.S., but has also created an intense social stigma that views drugs and drug offenders as inherently immoral. President Barack Obama and the Department of Justice must use every tool they have to draw down the War on Drugs before President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration in January.
The Obama administration has already indicated its willingness to challenge aspects of American drug policy. This president commuted the sentences of 774 federal prisoners, a greater number of commutations than the past 11 presidents combined, according to The Washington Post. These commutations were largely granted to those who received overly harsh sentences for drug crimes.
Obama must continue the commutation tactic and expand into granting pardons. But despite the work he has done to challenge the archaic sentencing norms of the War on Drugs, Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics indicate that drug offenders still make up nearly half of all federal prisoners.
The Obama administration should also codify states’ laws legalizing marijuana in the federal system. After Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2012, the DOJ simply decided to look away from the issue instead of changing federal laws to expressly allow state legalization.
As it stands, the Controlled Substance Act does not allow for the sale of Schedule 1 controlled substances such as marijuana. The Obama administration still has time to reschedule marijuana in his last few weeks of the presidency, thereby making it harder to repeal the legalization and decriminalization of the drug from the past eight years. The legalization of marijuana has been a crucial step away from the prohibitive drug policy that fuels the War on Drugs.
The most important step that the president and the DOJ must take is to directly call for an end to the War on Drugs. Since the Obama administration has participated in enforcing drug policies, it would be a drastic step, but a high-profile speech calling for an end to the War on Drugs could go a long way in fixing the system. Obama has indicated his desire for drug law reform, and utilizing his bully pulpit could catalyze further local and state level efforts after he leaves office.
In regard to Trump, current prospects for drug policy reform are dismal. His choice for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, publicly declared in a Senate drug hearing in April 2016 that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
Trump has also purportedly supported the excessively violent operations of the Philippine War on Drugs, according to The New York Times. It is not unlikely that the Trump administration will try to increase penalties or otherwise repeal the efforts of the past eight years to reform the DOJ.
The last two months of Obama’s administration may be the last chance to make significant changes to the status quo of drug laws in the next four years. The War on Drugs perpetuates the idea that drugs are evil and drug offenders are dangerous. In reality, however, certain drug use can be beneficial and drug offenders often need clinical help.
Using the power he has left, Obama must do all he can to reverse the trends of close to 50 years of the failed War on Drugs.