On June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon announced that the United States was fighting a “War on Drugs.” Nixon declared that drug abuse was “public enemy number one in the United States,” a crisis that forced the federal government to realign massive resources toward enforcement of drug law and drug treatment. Two years later, Nixon established the Drug Enforcement Agency, which still oversees drug policy today.
Over forty years and $1 trillion of spending later, the War on Drugs is a controversial policy. In 2011, the self-appointed Global Commission on Drug Policy, consisting of political leaders and public intellectuals, released a report stating, “The global war on drugs has failed.” No president, however, has seriously challenged the policy, and spending on the program has increased annually. 
US drug policy also affects the United States’ relationship with Mexico because Mexican drug traffickers sell in high quantities to Americans. As many as sixty thousand people have died in Mexico as a result of drug-related violence in the last six years, and Mexican officials have repeatedly called for a shift in the United States’ approach to drug law enforcement. Instead of employing significant resources toward low-level arrests, as the United States does now, Mexico hopes to “adjust the strategy [to] focus on certain type of crimes, like kidnapping, homicide, extortion.” This would require American cooperation in the form of relaxing low-level drug arrests.
While it is unlikely that either President Obama or Governor Romney would entirely reverse US drug policy if elected in 2012, they would take very different approaches going forward.
This debate is an edited version of a debate that is part of the US Presidential Election Project and as such there are some differences from normal debatabase debates. The two sides are not necessarily for and against, they may agree on a few areas – in this case the need to reduce demand, but are instead Obama and Romney’s positions so may not add up to a compelling case. As in other debatabase debates the counterpoints will be highlighting the flaws in the argument. The Points For are Barak Obama's position and Points Against Mitt Romney's.
President Obama’s Director of U.S. National Drug Control Policy—or Drug Czar—R. Gil Kerlikowske has rejected the term “War on Drugs,” stating, “the Obama Administration supports a ‘third way’ approach because balanced drug policies such as those in Sweden have accomplished much for the countries that have implemented them.” Nearing the end of the administration’s first term, however, the rhetoric has changed more than the policy. In his Fiscal Year 2013 budget, Obama requested $25.6 billion for drug enforcement—the highest annual total yet.
Despite this if reelected, Obama would take further steps to scale back the so-called War on Drugs. Rejecting the term is a symbolic start as it moves the issue away from being an issue of national security that the term ‘war’ implies it is. A third way would mean reducing the securitization of the issue; changing the view of drug addiction from being a moral crime to being a treatable disease so focusing on education and health. This may eventually mean decriminalising some drugs such as marijuana as happened in Seattle while not actually legalising drugs. In addition to Drug Czar Kerlikowske’s rejection of that term, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also acknowledged that the United States holds much of the responsibility for the ongoing violence in Mexico. Obama has since expressed willingness to collaborate with Mexican leaders to change policy, but has not proposed a detailed plan to do so.
Saying you want a third way is simply attempting to find a way to dress up moving away from prohibition as being a new and innovative policy. If there was a golden third way between prohibition and legalisation that prevents crime while allowing choice it would already have been found. While treating drugs as a public health issue may help reduce the number of people who are locked up for possession it does nothing to break drugs cartels or reduce the problem of supply so it is unlikely to be of much help to Mexico as the policy will mean reducing the help provided to Mexico while it is unlikely to have an effect on demand at least in the short to medium term. In short this would mean leaving the door open to the cartels.
Short of a nationwide restructuring of drug policy, the president’s ability to affect the everyday implementation of drug laws is limited. So far, President Obama has emphasized much needed judicial and penal reform. Currently the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world, and 22 percent of those incarcerated in federal and state prisons are drug offenders. Obama hopes to begin to address these numbers. He has supported alternatives to current detention strategies both in principle and as a cost-cutting technique. Specifically, he supports establishing of special drug courts and sentencing offenders to drug treatment programs rather than prisons. This is necessary because so many crimes are committed while people are high or to fund the habit. For example more than half of people arrested in San Diego had illegal drugs in their system. As a result treatment rather than prison will reduce the numbers of crimes committed. Obama also signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduces the disparity in sentencing of crack cocaine users as opposed to sentencing for cocaine users. It also eliminated mandatory minimums for possession and increased penalties for traffickers.
These judicial policy changes are cost-effective, pragmatic toward the goal of reducing drug use, and just. Incarceration costs approximately $30,600 annually per inmate, so treatment programs and reduced mandatory minimums for sentencing will save taxpayer dollars. The RAND Corporation (a government-supported non-profit think tank), among others, has found repeatedly that drug policies prioritizing treatment over punishment are more effective, while costing less. Finally, Obama has made US drug policy more just by reducing a sentencing disparity that had unduly punished African Americans for decades.
Whether rehabilitation reduces crime more than prison has been the subject of considerable debate for more than a century. Not all treatments work and the twelve step model used by most rehab clinics does not work and almost all the success in treatment for addictive substances (in this case alcohol) comes down to the willpower to initially take treatment rather than the treatment itself. Obviously those who are sentenced to drug treatment programs rather than prison are not making that crucial first step so the programs are unlikely to be very successful.
We also should remember that many of those who are in prison who are addicts are also violent criminals and those who commit criminal acts should got to prison to prevent them being a threat to others as well as to punish that act. Treatment as a sentence is only a sensible alternative if the offender’s only crime is possession of drugs.
 Cullen, Francis T., and Gendreau, Paul, ‘Assessing Correctional Rehabilitation: Policy, Practice, and Prospects’, in Policies Processes, and Decisions of the Criminal Justice System, 2000, pp.111-113.
The Obama administration has indicated that it will publicly address the failures of the War on Drugs if it wins a second term. In terms of the direction of drug policy as a whole, several Obama “aides and associates” have indicated that the President will bring drug policy to the forefront of the national discussion if he is reelected, but it is unclear what specific steps he would take, going forward. This would be welcome to most Americans; only 10% of people believe the policy of the war on drugs has been a success against 66% who consider it a failure. A national discussion is the only way to determine whether there should be a fundamental shift in policy.
Presidents are meant to lead not simply open up national discussions and follow whatever the public wants. While discussion is always welcome it is unlikely to actually provide any answers except telling us what the public wants – most people may consider the war on drugs a failure but that does not mean that they have any idea of what policies they want to replace it. A dialogue also simply kicks the problem down the road; how long is a national discussion going to take? If it is comprehensive this is likely to delay any decisions until after the next election.
Governor Romney would not scale back the War on Drugs, as he supports the punitive approach that characterizes drug policy in the status quo. Romney supports punitive strategies toward criminal justice in general, such as “three strikes and you’re out” laws, which impose mandatory sentences for people who have committed three offenses. These policies can be effective in reducing crime, in California after three strikes was implemented the crime rate declined by 43% although the three strikes was only one factor. Romney maintains that those who break current laws should be punished, and therefore has proposed that states should contract with for-profit prison companies to continue expanding prison populations in order to keep up with current rates of incarceration. If larger prisons are necessary in order to keep drug users and dealers off the streets, then they are a necessary cost.
Privatising prisons does not work – of course it will result in more prisons but it will also result in more convictions and soon those new prisons will be full too. This is because if prisons are privatised they become an industry, often literally meaning the prisoners manufacture goods for as little as 17 cents an hour, and those engaged in law enforcement have a stake. The local sheriffs often run these for profit facilities and so have a financial incentive to keep the prisons full so as to keep the money coming in. It is not correct that the three strikes rule in California have caused crime to fall, it has been similar to declines in states that don’t have the rule, instead there are other explanations for why crime has fallen such as a reduction in the consumption of alcohol. The Punitive policy towards drugs has been tried; it has resulted in one of the highest incarceration rates in the world and little appreciable drop in crime. It is time to change the policy.
Romney also has a record of preferring prohibitory policies over those that allow drug use with the intention of making it safer. For example, as Governor of Massachusetts, he vetoed a bill to allow the sale of syringes without a prescription. He has not since stated that he would take a different approach as president, and his position on marijuana use suggests that he would continue to support prohibitory laws.
Romney has staunchly opposed calls to legalize and regulate marijuana, making a moral argument against such a change by claiming that pot legalization is simply a pet issue of a “pleasure-seeking generation that never grew up.” While President Obama has not supported the legalization of marijuana, Romney is stronger in calling for harsh penalties for marijuana users in order to demonstrate the seriousness of the crime. He has also gone further than Obama in his opposition to marijuana by coming out against the legalization of the drug for medical use.
Dismissing drug users as a ‘pleasure-seeking generation that never grew up’ almost concedes the point. These people have a right to make the choice for themselves whether to use drugs – the government should make sure the risks are known, and the substance priced accordingly but ultimately there is nothing wrong with seeking pleasure.
Romney further muddies the waters by not allowing the sale of syringes as this is an act that would save lives. A study in the lancet estimated that with a needle exchange program in the US between 10000 and 20000 HIV infections could have been prevented between 187 and 2000.
Like Obama, Romney has indicated a willingness to talk to Mexican leaders about collaboration and has admitted the need to address large-scale demand for drugs in the United States. When asked how to improve the War on Drugs, he stated, “We gotta stop the demand here in this country.” And that demand is immense, it is estimated that there are 22.6 million Americans aged 12 of over using illegal drugs. Additionally, he told the Hispanic Leadership Network that along with preventing demand through education, the United States needs to improve its control of the Mexican border.
Romney will try to control domestic demand for drugs by prohibiting their use, educating young people about their harms (as exemplified by his record as Governor of Massachusetts), and punishing those who break the law. Through education and regulation, the United States can win the War on Drugs, rather than appease drug growers, traffickers, dealers, and users.
 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, ‘Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings’, NSDUH Series H-41, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 11-4658. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2011.
This makes it sound like the US government does not currently have an education program on drugs, this is not true. The current program is making very little difference to drug use. So Romney’s policy is really the same failed policy being recycled again; more border security and a few measures that will make little impact on the demand side. The White House has been highlighting that it has been spending $5billion on reducing drug use while also increasing border security this is not a change so how can we expect an improvement?
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