Today was a big day in the world of drug enforcement policy. Not only was Barrack Obama, the man who made three major drug promises in his 2008 campaign (see below) re-elected as President of the United States of America; two states (Colorado and Washington) voted to legalise the recreational use of marijuana, and one (Massachusetts) voted to legalise medical use and decriminalise recreational use, so that in future people found in possession of small quantities of marijuana will face a $100 civil fine rather than criminal penalties.
This creates some nice choices for President Obama. Does he respect the democratically expressed wishes of these state voters, or does he live up to his country’s obligations under the 1998 United Nations Treaty against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances which, largely at US behest, requires nations to ‘…adopt such measures as may be necessary to establish as a criminal offence under its domestic law, when committed intentionally, the possession, purchase or cultivation of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances for personal consumption contrary to the provisions of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, as amended by the 1972 Protocol, and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971.
The conventional legal wisdom in Australia has been that these provisions mean that a country cannot legalise the currently illegal drugs unless it denounces the treaties, so President Obama would appear to have a significant problem on his hands.
During the election campaign of 2008 Candidate Obama made three major drug policy promises; he would
(i) reduce the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine - which whether intentionally or not ended up being yet another mechanism for oppressing black people. Obama did reduce the disparity but not as much as he wanted to. There was trenchant opposition to even the reduction he achieved.
(ii) end the Congressional ban on funding needle syringe programs. He did that but Congress re-instated the ban last December. In the period after the ban had been repealed, no Federal funding had been provided for NSPs.
(iii) respect state laws on medical marihuana (when these had been established by votes). He kept to that for a while but then stopped respecting state laws in the last year or so.
Australia will be in a position to ascertain where Federal enforcement policy in the United States is headed in President Obama’s second term, because a notice has just gone around advising members of the press gallery that Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, will be speaking in Canberra in Parliament House on Wednesday 14th November at an event running from midday till 1.30pm. In his position, which was created by President Nixon 40 years ago and is often referred to unofficially as the 'Drug Czar', Mr. Kerlikowske coordinates all aspects of Federal drug control programs in the US and implementation of the President’s National Drug Control Strategy.
In the course of his address Mr Kerlikowske will no doubt emphasise that he has dropped the official use of the term 'War on Drugs' in May 2009 (big deal) and claim that the USG now responds to illicit drugs primarily as a health and social problems, which would be fine except that it's not true.
Here are some questions I would like to ask Mr Kerlikowske:
(i) in light of the fact that a majority of voters in Washington state and Colorado on 6 November supported initiatives calling for cannabis to be regulated by the state rather than by criminals and corrupt police, will the government of the United States now respect the wishes of these voters and if not why not?
(ii) As President Obama was re-elected this month and had pledged in 2008 to provide federal funding for needle syringe programs, will the USG now overturn the Congressional ban on Federal funding for needle syringe programs re-imposed in December 2011 and start providing Federal funding for them? Doesn't the failure to provide Federal funding send a terrible message that the USG isn't serious about controlling HIV among its own people?
(iii) Australia adopted 'harm minimisation' as its official national drug policy on 2 April 1985 and that is still this country's official national drug policy. Almost every industrialised country apart from the USA and a growing number of developing countries now accept 'harm reduction'. When is the USA going to drop its objection to the use of the term 'harm reduction' and accept that this is now the mainstream international drug policy except for a few countries like the USA, Russia and Saudi Arabia?
(iv) As a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Mr Obama called the war on drugs “an utter failure” and advocated marijuana decriminalization. Who got it right: Senator Obama or President Obama?
(v) What have been the benefits of US drug policy since 2009 in terms of reducing deaths, disease, crime and corruption? How much has that cost US taxpayers?
(vi) US governments for many years have emphasised the importance of basing policy on respect for powerful market forces. Many believe that communism collapsed because it tried to ignore powerful market forces. Please explain how US drug policy is based on a profound respect for powerful market forces.
(vii) At the Summit of the Americas this April, many of the thirty or so countries represented, including Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Honduras expressed a very strong desire to realign drug policy with the realities of the market. Why is the USA opposed to this?
(viii) The 42nd, 43rd and 44th Presidents of the USA are all on record as having used cannabis. Doesn't it send a terrible message to young people of rank hypocrisy that cannabis is still illegal?
(viii) The US government now faces the very significant problem of a 'fiscal cliff'. If this problem is not resolved quickly, the US economy could be thrown into recession. Why doesn't the US government stop wasting billions of taxpayers' dollars on drug law enforcement when it is hard to identify benefits from this vast expenditure but easy to identify numerous, serious unintended negative consequences?
(ix) Australia provides 35 million sterile needles and syringes a year to its citizens who inject drugs. This is much more than the USA which has a population about 15 times greater. About 2% of Australians who inject drugs are infected with HIV. The equivalent figure in the USA is much higher. Does the USG believe in evidence based policy?
(x) The USA has 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prison and jail population. Many of these inmates are serving long sentences for drug related crimes. Does having the highest rate of incarceration in the world help the US to build a better society?