My article in US magazine Truthout:
President Barack Obama’s drug war legacy is paved with partially good intentions. It differed greatly between his domestic agenda and around the world. The former showed signs of bravery, challenging decades of draconian and counterproductive policy toward drug users and dealers, reducing the number of incarcerated men and women across the United States.
The latter, however, mostly continued failed ideas of the past and consisted of funding and arming some of the most repressive nations in the world, including Honduras and Mexico, worsening apocalyptic gang and drug violence. Many refugees fleeing to the US are a result of these White House directives.
These experiences could shape the Trump administration in its drug agenda, but it’s already clear that they prefer re-fighting the lost drug battles of the past, pledging a “law and order” agenda that guarantees rising prison numbers (and higher profits for private prison corporations). This will have zero effect on drug use or the social issues associated with it.
The drug war was never about ending drug abuse, but a battle against people of color. A former top advisor to President Richard Nixon admitted that it targeted antiwar protestors and “Black people.”
Today, drug reform is possible with even some of the most aggressive drug war backers of the past advocating the legalization and regulation of many, if not all, drugs. It remains a minority, if growing, view.
In the waning months of his presidency, Obama granted clemency and pardons to over 1,700 Americans in prison for nonviolent federal drug crimes. He used this extraordinary power more than any president since Harry Truman and 1,927 individuals are now free due to his decision.
I recently met one of these men in Washington, DC. Evans Ray was 12 years into a life sentence plus 10 years for distribution of crack cocaine and crack while possessing a firearm when he received Obama’s commutation in August 2016. He told me that he wanted to thank Obama for “allowing me a second chance in life, for allowing me the privilege of spending time with my mom and my kids and for giving me the opportunity to be a productive citizen.” Ray plans to establish an organization to help recently released prisoners readjust into society.
Despite Obama’s important record, tens of thousands of clemency applications were rejected including from prisoners such as Ferrell Scott, who is currently serving life imprisonment without parole for marijuana offenses.
As the Trump administration’s domestic drug war agenda becomes clear — Attorney General Jeff Sessions is threatening to overturn Obama’s Justice Department 2009 directive not to prosecute marijuana users and distributors who don’t break state laws — it’s now possible to view the Obama legacy in plain view. Obama’s domestic drug policies were a combination of sentencing logic, pushing back against harsh prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders, and gradual, sensible moves to transform the fight against drugs into a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue. People with opioid addictions were not acutely criminalized, though vastly more support is required. Many states legalized and regulated marijuana.
Globally, Obama was far more predictable in his drug war agenda. As one drug reform advocate told me recently in Washington, DC, there’s virtually no scrutiny in Congress (or the mainstream media) for US drug policy in remote corners of the globe.
Honduras is a notable exception. After the 2009 coup, backed by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, US military funding soared, along with catastrophic violence against civilians. The murder of famed environmental activist Berta Cáceres in 2016 ledDemocratic Congress member Hank Johnson of Georgia to introduce a bill in Congress calling on the US to halt all funds to Honduras for their military and police operations.
Honduras and Central America are still key transit areas for drugs entering the US. Washington’s support for neighboring countries such as Mexico, along with huge US domestic demand for drugs, has inarguably fueled the soaring death toll across the region.
When I visited Honduras in 2016, I spoke to Laura Zuñiga Cáceres, the daughter of Berta Cáceres, in her hometown ofLa Esperanza. She demanded that President Obama “cut all funding to Honduras, not just military but to private companies. Funding their projects creates a culture of dispossession [for locals].” This message is equally relevant to Trump.
President Trump is likely to continue — if not accelerate — Obama’s aggressive drug war policies. The Obama administration increased counter-narcotic activities across Africa and Afghanistan, supporting dictatorships in the process, and success rates against drugs were minimal. Afghanistan remains the world’s biggest supplier of opium.
Ending the failed drug war at home and abroad requires bravery and a decision to put ethical priorities above a desire to sign lucrative US defense contracts with repressive states across the world. Will President Trump build on the work begun by Obama in dismantling an architecture of domestic drug policy that leads to mass incarceration?
Internationally, Washington has yet to recognize, let alone apologize for, a “war on drugs” that benefits cartels, organized criminals and dictatorships.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based journalist, author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe and is researching the US-led “war on drugs.” Follow him on Twitter: @antloewenstein.