Obama’s Legacy: Drug Warrior-in-Chief


As the sun sets today on President Obama’s two terms in the White House and dawns on incoming President Trump’s first, the “legacy” pieces have already started flowing. Most of them are, of course, glowing, noting his transformational moves in many areas, like LGBT protections and healthcare. But on criminal justice and civil liberties issues where he had the chance to be equally radical, he’s been at best a nudge and at worst a reactionary.

Barack Obama, leader of the “Choom Gang” of potheads in high school, could have literally ended the War on Drugs, at least federally. He could have been the example to show that drug use in and of itself is harmless for the vast majority of people, especially marijuana. Drug abuse is a scourge to be treated as a health care issue, but not moderate recreational use, and certainly not with a federal paramilitary war costing billions every year and incarcerating hundreds of thousands of men and women.

Although not directly in control of it, the president can request that the various departments with relevant oversight change the classification of marijuana and other drugs. As political appointees, the heads of those departments answer to the president and can be replaced by more ameanable yet still qualified candidates if they don’t perform to his satisfaction.

While the Obama administration did recently approve more research opportunities for marijuana, it is still listed as a Schedule I narcotic. The federal government therefore considers it to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”, both of which are laughably false.

It’s where President Obama actually has made moves to help the victims of the drug war that really show his hypocrisy. Over the last 8 years he has pardoned or commuted the sentences of 1,927 individuals, the vast majority of them in the last few months, and the vast majority of them for federal drug crimes. In general, Obama has commuted the most sentences of any president since 1900 (but pardoned the fewest). Just yesterday he commuted the federal sentences of 330 people, the most ever in one day.

But why would you choose only to relieve the individual burden on an admittedly very generous handful of people when you could do so for the entire nation by changing the federal stance on drugs in the first place? Why shorten the sentences of people in jail for drugs if you won’t stop locking even more up for it? This lame duck half measure, while quite literally a life saver for many people, only begs the question why more wasn’t done.

The Obama DEA’s continued raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in states where they are legal takes his nuanced legacy on the drug war and drags it through the mud. Congress, including the Republican-controlled House, actually passed a law preventing the administration from spending money to prosecute cases against state-authorized medical marijuana operations, but he continued to do so, even as he was letting people out of federal prison for using themselves.

President Obama has talked a good game on weed, portraying himself as the hip dad who is totally cool with it, man. But his hypocritical actions have left us wondering if, rhetoric aside, a New York liberal like Donald Trump could really be any worse.

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