Ana Marie Cox
Ana Marie Cox is a senior political columnist for the Guardian US. She was a contributor to the very first issue of McSweeney's and is the author of the novel Dog Days.

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REASON 88: Obama has worked to end the war on drug users.

I'm just going to take for granted that you, who are reading this, realize just how pointless and stupid our unwinnable "war on drugs" has been. A cool trillion dollars spent, countless lives extinguished, untold heartache, unimaginable amounts human potential wasted just in terms of lives cut short, but also all the would-be Einsteins, Shakespeares, and Martin Luther Kings who instead find themselves by circumstances or birth trapped in addiction, jail, criminal enterprise, or all of the above.

It's the last category I want to focus on, because although it's the most difficult to determine in quantitative terms, it's also the area where a president and like-minded legislators could make the most immediate difference—Obama has already done a great deal and has pledged to do more. Romney hasn't just maintained a ghastly silence on the issue but has surrounded himself with supporters whose backgrounds indicate a throwback disposition toward the subject.

What Obama has already done: He's addressed one of the most obvious injustices of drug policy by signing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Until then, federal law mandated terms for offenses involving crack cocaine that exacted penalties a hundred times more harsh than those involving powdered cocaine. Someone holding five grams of crack faced a five-year mandatory sentence, whereas it would take 500 grams of powdered cocaine to receive the same sentence. And it scaled. A penalty for ten grams of crack was equivalent to that for 1,000 grams of powdered cocaine: ten years. For economic reasons you can learn more about here, blacks are far more likely to be arrested for crack-related crimes than powdered cocaine-related ones: 85 percent of those arrested for crack-related crimes are black while only 30 percent of those arrested for powdered cocaine are. Blacks are also more likely to be arrested for drug crimes in general—in some states, up to 11 (11!) times more likely than whites.

The Fair Sentencing Act took a step toward evening out sentencing. Possession of crack cocaine now results in sentences about eighteen times as long as those relating to powdered cocaine. This act also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack. The law could affect an estimated 3,000 cases annually, reducing sentences by an average of about two years and saving an estimated $42 million over five years.

One could argue that the likelihood of crack cocaine distribution involving violence justifies the continued disparity. I'd argue, however, that the likelihood of crack cocaine users (and offenders) being under the age of 30 justifies taking an approach that would give those with the greatest actuarial potential the more lenient sentence, if circumstances warranted.

But this isn't just about keeping people out of jail for the sake of it, or even for the sake of money, though certainly it would save a lot. Reducing mandatory sentences is the first tentative step toward unraveling the knot of arrest, addiction, and poverty that binds so many. When the penalties are harsh and unrelenting, arresting a young person for a felony drug crime pretty much guarantees you'll be arresting the same, older person for a drug crime later on—especially if that person is an addict, which is true for an estimated half of our prison population, including those arrested for non-drug crimes. Drug users are twice as likely to return to prison. Only about 20 percent of drug-addicted inmates receive treatment, despite some programs showing that treatment reduces recidivism by as much as 85 percent. Under the Obama administration, the meager federal prison drug treatment program has received increased funding, and there have been feints at instituting a more muscular "second chance" program, though not much has really been done besides making Michael Vick its poster boy.

According to GQ correspondent Marc Ambinder, Obama plans to do more in a second term, though what, exactly, is unclear. That said, even a change in the perspective of lawmakers would be an improvement. Obama appears to be part of the growing number of politicians who are willing to recognize that not only is the drug war a failure, but that the only solution to the crime and misery it exacerbates is community engagement, treatment for addicts, and appropriate consequences for abuse by casual users.

What might matter the most for those who are the victims of the war on drugs is keeping Obamacare in place. The Affordable Care Act could change the lives of thousands, if not millions, of addicts. Right now, of the estimated 23 million Americans who need treatment for the disease of addiction, less than 1 percent get treatment. The truth is, most addicts don't want treatment, but some do: about two million, and over a quarter of them cited inability to pay for treatment as their number one reason for not getting it. The ACA addresses this particular tragedy in three ways: establishing parity for treatment of addiction as a mental disease on par with any other disease—making professional treatment an option for everyone (everyone!); allowing children to stay on their parents' health insurance through the age of 26—thus creating a safety net for those who develop addiction in early adulthood; and mandating coverage despite pre-existing conditions—right now, anyone with a history of chemical dependency would be rejected from any affordable plan, no matter how much sobriety they may have accumulated or what level of commitment they've shown.

The ACA might even make a dent in the percentage of diagnosed addicts who don't think they need treatment, as well as those who don't even know they have a disease, via grants for something called Screening Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT). That program uses community institutions (jails, emergency rooms, campus health centers) as contact points for identifying addicts in need of treatment; all patients are assessed for drug and alcohol use and if they are at risk, they get a mini-intervention aimed at raising their awareness of the problem. Those identified as addicts in need of treatment get referrals. The ACA makes these screenings a mandatory benefit for anyone with health insurance.

Romney's promise/threat (Preat? Thromise?) to "repeal Obamacare" would undo these advances.

There are other reasons you should be very scared of what Romney might do when it comes to drug policy. Romney has addressed drug policy in the same way he addresses almost every other vital question facing our country—as vaguely as possible. On the record, he has committed to expanding the U.S.'s attempts to stem the tide of illegal drugs across the Mexican border (a stalemate that has cost approximately 65,000 lives thus far) and he opposes any decriminalization of marijuana—otherwise, he has not said much. As with other policy issues, we must look to those close to him for hints at what might be in store. He keeps pretty gruesome company. One of his top fundraisers, Mel Sembler, is the former owner of a chain of "tough love" rehabs now defunct due to allegations of torture, sexual assault, and mental abuse. The chain's organizational structure morphed into the Drug Free America Foundation, now chaired by Sembler's wife, Betty. DFAF campaigns against the decriminalization of any drug use and against harm reduction policies (needle exchange programs and the like). Romney himself is linked, through Bain Capital, to the Aspen Education Group, another "tough love" rehab conglomerate with a history of abuse and fraud.

Look, anyone who's really passionate about undoing the damage caused by the drug war has every reason to be disappointed in Obama. He's our first president who's an admitted drug scofflaw and the first to admit that the drug war is an "utter failure," and he has yet to tackle any of the many decriminalization efforts that states have begun to experiment with. His drug czar—whose obscurity (his name is Gil Kerlikowske) is probably a sign of the administration's current "first, do no harm" attitude—has been less-than-awesome on leading a change in attitudes.

But, as they say in the treatment center programs, "Progress, not perfection," and I will vote for Obama secure in the knowledge that under a second Obama term, life for those suffering because of the drug war will get better. Should Romney get elected, those lives will get worse, if only because Romney has put himself in the company of people whose attitudes, if translated into policy, would drag our country even deeper into the racially polarizing, insanely expensive, and futile errand that properly wouldn't be a more substantial "war" but a slow and steady slaughter of people and dreams.

So, time to make your own "just say yes" joke and head to the polls. Let's do this thing.

Ana Marie Cox
 St. Paul, Minnesota


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