Obama's overdue to ease up on Drug War

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As intelligent as he may be, President Barack Obama is also a creature of habit. He will not hesitate to embrace progressive positions he has drifted away from, especially as an election looms. That always has been his modus operandi.

Last year, various Democratic constituencies began publicly grumbling about Mr. Obama's lack of progress on legislation and actions he promised as a candidate. There was talk about a growing enthusiasm gap, especially among young people and recent college graduates burned by the economic downturn.

The LGBT community announced it would withhold financial support for his re-election if he didn't "evolve" faster in embracing marriage equality and other issues. This year, sensing a diminution of support in that community, he did.

Last year, Mr. Obama deported more illegal immigrants to Central and South America than any of his Oval Office predecessors, an irony Republicans shamelessly vowed to exploit.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Obama inoculated himself against charges he was breaking up families by ordering immigration to back off deporting law-abiding children of these undocumented immigrants for now. He also reiterated his support for the Dream Act. It didn't shock anyone that his support among Hispanics, already higher than Mitt Romney's, shot through the stratosphere.

Still, it isn't likely Mr. Obama will ever be able to make good on his promise to close the military's prison at Guantanamo Bay as long as Congress is divided. His record on civil liberties is, arguably, as bad as President George W. Bush's was.

On the other hand, African-Americans, Mr. Obama's most loyal constituents, understand that he needs us to move to the back of the bus without too much complaining for now, lest suspicious white folks mistake his occasional lip service on our behalf for substantive action.

An issue that would have an immediate and positive effect on the quality of life in many African-American communities is a more rational approach to the drug war.

Marc Ambinder, in an article for GQ, reports that Mr. Obama is planning to back away from a set of stupid and mindless strategies that have been in place since the Nixon administration.

"According to ongoing discussions with the Obama aides and associates," Mr. Ambinder writes, "if the president wins a second term, he plans to tackle another American war that has so far been successful only in perpetuating more misery: the four decades of the Drug War."

So far this fits the pattern. To its shame, the Obama administration has been more zealous than previous administrations in militarizing the Drug War. Mr. Obama also has cracked down more aggressively on medical marijuana use and unleashed the Department of Justice on licensed pot distilleries in states with more liberal pot laws than the federal government approves.

Despite a pattern of appeasing valued constituencies, Mr. Obama is signaling that he won't ease up on the Drug War until his second term. If he loses, don't expect Mr. Romney, a man who would take us back to the 1950s in every way, to bring anything approaching a nuanced understanding to this issue.

"And pot smokers shouldn't expect the president to come out in favor of legalizing marijuana," Mr. Ambinder cautions. "But from his days as a state senator in Illinois, Obama has considered the Drug War to be a failure, a conflict that has exacerbated the problem of drug abuse, devastated entire communities, changed policing practices for the worse, and has led to a generation of young children, disproportionately black and minority, to grow up in dislocated homes, or in none at all."

There's no accounting for the monumental hypocrisy that has allowed the Drug War to continue unabated under a president who knows better, especially since it is the biggest cause of the high incarceration rate of black men. As an admitted recreational drug user in his youth, Mr. Obama is uniquely qualified to speak to this issue with some clarity and moral authority.

Unfortunately, his fear that voters would be persuaded against any more enlightened policy by hysterical propaganda out of the Romney camp has caused him to underestimate his advantage. Even if he follows through and does the right thing in a second term, his cynical dodge will always be seen for what it is -- something less than a profile in courage.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1631; www.twitter.com/TonyNormanPG. First Published July 3, 2012 12:00 AM


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