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November 21, 2008

Obama's likely pick for Drug Czar opposes needle exchange

Needle Exchange, originally uploaded by Todd Huffman.

Barack Obama supports needle exchange programs for intravenous drug users, which have been clinically proven to slow the spread of HIV and other illnesses.

In fact, the president-elect wants to lift the ban on federal funding for needle exchanges.
So, why is he be leaning towards a Drug Czar who opposes these lifesaving programs, despite an otherwise pragmatic and compassionate approach to drug policy, Maia Szalavitz wonders.

Update: Ta Nehesi notes that Obama's designated Attorney General, Eric Holder, favors lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for some first-time drug possessors (i.e., 5-year mandatory minimums for anyone possessing marijuana with intent to distribute).

Update II: Ramstad voted in 1999 to prohibit needle exchange in the District of Columbia.


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He opposed them 16 years ago. Don't you think it would be fair, at least to your readers, to see if he still feels that way before asserting that he does?

He voted against needle exchange as recently as 1999.

Should the federal government have a "Drug Czar"?

I didn't even realize we still had a Drug Czar until the news broke that Obama may chose Jim Ramstad (R-MN) for that job.

There are plenty of professors who research drug policy whom Obama could phone to discuss the issue, with-or-without there being a "Drug Czar."

I don't object to the idea of a high-level point person for drug policy. If we're ever going to have a sane drug policy, it will require us to dismantle and rebuild basically from the ground up, not just in criminal justice but in health care, defense, and many other areas.

So, having a Czar or Czarina to coordinate across agencies might be necessary to implement sweeping reforms.

However, we shouldn't have a Drug (War) Czar because we shouldn't have a drug war.

What is a "lengthy minimum sentence"?

What is a "lengthy minimum sentence"?

Holder wanted 18-months for first-time convicted drug dealers. That's not the same as wanting a lengthy sentence for "first-time drug posessors," but it's not much better.

Eric Blair -

The original post links to an article which says:
Holder wanted "minimum sentences of 18 months for first-time convicted drug dealers, 36 months for the second time and 72 months for every conviction thereafter." He also wanted to "make the penalty for distribution and possession with intent to distribute marijuana a felony, punishable with up to a five-year sentence."


A mandatory minimum sentence that's long.

Holder reportedly supported a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence for anyone possessing marijuana with intent to distribute.

Holder's record on the First Amendment isn't real great either.

Man, I'm having flashbacks to the Clinton presidency. In '92, after twelve long years of a Republican whitehouse, I thought Clinton would be a terrific change. He was a Democrat, he was a boomer, he was a rocker, he admitted smoking pot, and he even appeared on MTV. No way he'd oppress our social liberties, right?

Then we got eight years of escalating drug war with the PMRC thrown in just for fun. If you can't count on the Democrats to protect free speech and our right to party, what good are they?

Damn, Obama better keep his word...

Man, I'm having flashbacks to the Clinton presidency.

You and me both, Dude. While I'm eternally grateful that we've been spared what would have amounted to a third GW Bush term in the form of McCain, I'm less than thrilled by the prospect of a third Clinton term, to put it mildly. It looks like we can cross "a sane drug policy" off our wish list already.

Sounds like an ideal time for Democrat public figures who want more sane drug policies to speak up.

Are any of them doing so?

Actually you never know, McCain may have been better able to make moves in this direction. Nixon to China and all that.

Nixon to China and all that.

Yeah, I know. But would he? His maverickness has not been dependable of late.

I fear that I doubt it. I've never noticed any US politicians stick their necks out on this issue.

Even if he were so inclined, he might be afraid to because of concern about being attacked from the right - the same thing that might keep an Obama from addressing the issue - even if he were otherwise inclined to do so.

I don't object to the idea of a high-level point person for drug policy.

Why should drug policy be determined at the federal level, especially as pertains to law enforcement? The War on Drugs has been the primary focus of the drug czar since the position was created. Criminal law enforcement is usually the focus of state and local authorities; is there some compelling reason that illicit drugs should be handled differently?

Is anyone aware of an instance where the federal involvement in drug policy has created a positive difference? Compare the federal position on medical marijuana versus the position of several states, or the insane federal sentencing statutes versus state sanctions for drug offenses.

Actually you never know, McCain may have been better able to make moves in this direction. Nixon to China and all that.

If this were an apt analogy, wouldn't that make Pat Nixon a communist?

One of the first things Bush did after entering office was to deny government aid to students with drug convictions.

Meanwhile, back in Bushworld...

Well, McCain proposed some sweeping CIA reforms, but otherwise he'd probably keep everything as it is. That Obama isn't about to change things isn't that surprising - his entire shtick is that he's a realist. He's never really done anything even left of center on criminal justice issues.

I think it is important to remember that the "War on Drugs" really started in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the Nixon administration. His stance on drugs was in fact a result of growing concerns regarding the use of drugs such as LSD back in the 60s and 70s and its health consequences, but also because he felt that a crack down on drug users would also help to dismantle the anti-war movement at that time. Further, people always forget that the Clinton administration was also influenced by a VERY conservative public and Congress - which was majority Republican at that time. A president only has but so much power and is often only able to do as much as those around him will allow... As for the idea that John McCain would have been more liberal regarding drug policies is not very realistic. Think about who his base of supporters are... the conservative Christian right with a very conservative Christian right VP. There would have been no way that his supporters would have allowed even a discussion about relaxing - least of all lifting - current laws regarding drug enforcement. If anything, they probably would have pushed for stiffer laws. And the reality is that Obama is but one man, that must answer to the public. Until public opinion shifts, the chances of changing drug policy in this country looks pretty dismal. Therefore, it is up to advocates on this issue to really push to make this issue more public emphasizing the benefits of progressive policies. It will not be until then, that the possibility of policy change will be possible.

Last, comments such as this "If you can't count on the Democrats to protect free speech and our right to party, what good are they?" really are not helpful for the movement towards a more realistic and progressive approach to drug policies.

Obama is very much a centrist, so this isn't very surprising. Leadership on genuinely liberal issues is going to have to come from Congress. I don't think Obama will spend political capital in fights against his own party, so there's real hope of promising movement, but he's also not going to spend capital pushing agenda items of the left. I think we're going to see a very cautious first term, which is as it needs to be if there's any hope of a second term.

To be successful, this has to be framed as a hard headed, pragmatic public health position.

This, and ultimately, drugs legalization/decriminalization, cannot be framed as a liberal initiative or there is zero chance of passage.

These will be radioactive issues for liberals unless they are given political cover by gettting say some Republicans from South Carolina to endorse it.

Not saying its easy - it is not.

And I suspect that some of the strongest opponents will be from black representatives, whose communities are hard hit by drugs and who may see this as a "pro drug use " move, which I don't think it is.

And I suspect that some of the strongest opponents will be from black representatives, whose communities are hard hit by drugs and who may see this as a "pro drug use " move, which I don't think it is.

Well, this depends on how people appeal to them. If one of the arguments used to end the war on drugs is that it's discriminatory, with blacks getting longer sentences than whites who use or deal in similar drugs, then I don't think it'll be difficult to get blacks to oppose continuing the war.

Alon Levy: sure he has -- requiring videotaping of police interrogations.


There are a number of blacks who are upset about the disparity in punishment for cocaine vs crack cocaine etc.

But while I've seen this issue raised a number of times, I personally have not seen any black leaders or thinkers proposing legalization or decriminalization. Not saying there have been none...just saying I've never seen it.

A Recovering Person should never be appointed as Drug Czar. A person fighting his own demons in Alcoholics Anonymous should not be expected to make level-headed decisions about others. Needle exchange programs save lives and reduce the spread of disease.
Marijuana is still a Schedule 1 Drug, which means:
(A) The drug or other substance has high potential for abuse.
(B) The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.
(C) There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.

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