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Illicit Drug Policy
The Election and the Prospects for Drug Policy Reform
By Phil Coffin

Will Obama's second term hold promise for real progress on drug policy?

The victory Tuesday night of the Obama/Biden ticket makes Barack Obama the first President since Ronald Reagan to win reelection with more than 50 percent of the popular vote – the first Democrat to do so since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Winning 50.5% of the vote compared to Romney/Ryan’s 48.0% was an unequivocal victory and the Electoral vote count of 332 versus 206 is stronger still. Obama’s vote totals were highest among the young, minorities, and women. As an older, White male, I am sorry to report that he did not do as well among the elderly, Whites, and males and particularly among old, White men.

The Democrats also gained two seats in the Senate, where many pundits had predicted the Republicans would take the majority. The new Democrat majority (55 versus 45) is not, however, a sufficient majority to give the Democrats clear control under the Senate’s rules, which require a two-thirds majority to prevent filibusters.

Going into the election Republicans held the majority in the House of Representatives by 242 versus 193, with five vacant seats. When the next Congress takes office in January, the Republicans will hold a slightly reduced majority of 234 to 195. Republicans thus remain solidly in control of the House.

In his victory speech, President Obama said that, “in the coming weeks and months I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together -- reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil." But it remains to be seen whether his efforts at bipartisanship will be any better received in 2013 than they were in 2009. The Republicans are in nearly as strong a position to create gridlock as they were before the election and nothing so far suggests to me that they are any less willing to sacrifice the public interest and the economy in order to oppose whatever the President tries to do. Only time will tell. And only time will tell what agenda the President will pursue and how progressive a stance he will take, including on public health policy issues.

While the Presidential election was the main event for most of us on Tuesday with the Congressional races secondary, there were also very important votes at the state level. These included a number of referendum measures of importance to public health policy, of which four were of great potential importance to American drug policy. In the vote on one of these measures, for instance, Massachusetts became the eighteenth state to legalize medical marijuana.

The other three were even more fundamental in their implications for drug policy. Colorado’s measure was a constitutional amendment to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana, allowing adults to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and permitting growing as many as six plants in private, secure areas. The Washington measure would allow those at least 21 years old to buy as much as one ounce of marijuana from a licensed retailer. The third measure, in Oregon, was to allow commercial cultivation and sale of marijuana to adults through state-licensed stores.

Colorado’ Measure 64 passed 55% to 45%, thus making Colorado the first state to reverse the criminalization of marijuana. A few hours later, Washington’s Initiative 504 also passed by roughly 55% to 45%. The Oregon vote on Measure 80 went the opposite, 55% against and 45% for the measure. In related referenda, the voters of four Michigan cities, overwhelmingly approved local measures directing their police forces to stop arresting marijuana users. “The beginning of the end has begun,” declared Allen St. Pierre, of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, when he learned of the votes. Ethan Nadelmann, of the Drug Policy Alliance, also commented on the outcomes on these measures saying, "this is now a mainstream issue, with citizens more or less divided on the issue but increasingly inclined to favor responsible regulation of marijuana over costly and ineffective prohibitionist policies." There is already talk that these votes have given new support to measure in at least three Latin American nations to adopt re-legalization measures (Dewey, 2012; Johnson, 2012).

The question now arises whether President Obama will be influenced by the evidence these ballot victories give of the public’s openness to the re-legalization of marijuana. Given that his election relied to a very large degree on the support of the same populations that suffer most from the inequities of drug prohibition – minorities, the young, and women – we might hope to see a greater openness on this subject during his second term of office. Even before the election results, human rights documentarian Eugene Jarecki had predicted that Obama might take on this issue in his second term, “if the public reduces his wiggle room on the issue.” The pressure provided by these ballot measures may provide just the reduction in wiggle room Mr. Jarecki was speaking of.

In 2009, the National Association for Public Health Policy joined with other public health organizations and professional groups in the field of substance abuse treatment in urging President Obama to appoint a “Drug Czar” with actual expertise in the field and commitment to a public health approach. Collectively we offered a number of names of well qualified candidates, such as Prof. David Lewis of Brown University and Prof. Thomas Nicholson of Western Kentucky University. If he had followed our urgings he would have been the first President since Richard Nixon to appoint a “Drug Czar” with real expertise. Regrettably, Obama chose instead to appoint another cop to the job. While the Obama administration has given lip service to the ideal of a public health approach, they have in fact remained wedded to the criminalization of drugs and drug use.

Now it is to be hoped that President Obama will seize the opportunity to set a new course for drug policy during his second term. An excellent starting point would be the appointment of a new Drug Czar. This time we can only hope that he will give serious consideration to someone like David Lewis or Tom Nicholson, who can guide our nation in the adoption of a true public health approach to the problem of drug abuse (N.A.P.H.P., 1999; Nicholson, et al., 2012).


Dewey, M. (Nov. 8, 2012). As pot initiatives pass in Colorado and Washington, Mexico may reconsider drug policy. KUT News online. http://www.kutnews.org/post/pot-initiatives-pass-colorado-and-washington-mexico-may-reconsider-drug-policy

Johnson, T. (Nov. 7, 2012). Latin American challenges to drug war could be next. The Kansas City Star. http://www.kansascity.com/2012/11/07/3905447/us-votes-to-legalize-pot-may-encourage.html#storylink=cpy

Leber, R. (2012). "The House I Live In" director Eugene Jarecki on the failed drug war. Think Progress Alyssa. http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2012/10/12/1004491/the-house-i-live-in-director-eugene-jarecki-on-the-failed-drug-war/?mobile=nc

National Association for Public Health Policy (1999). A public health approach to mitigating the negative consequences of illicit drug abuse. Journal of Public Health Policy, 20, 268-281. http://www.duncan-associates.com/Mitigating-the-Negative-Consequences-of-Illicit-Drugs.pdf

National Association for Public Health Policy (Dec. 14, 2008). How About a Competent Drug Czar for a Change? NAPHP.org online. http://www.naphp.org/index.php/fuseaction/magazine.article/articleid/74/

National Association for Public Health Policy (Mar. 11, 2009). Obama Nominates his "Drug Czar". NAPHP.org online. http://www.naphp.org/index.php/fuseaction/magazine.article/articleid/79/

Nicholson, T.; Duncan, D. F.; White, J.; and Watkins, C. (2012). Focusing on abuse, not use: A proposed new direction for US drug policy. Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, 19(4), 303-308. http://duncan-associates.com/Oxford_policy_paper.pdf

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