DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: In a 2011 Reason cover story, I explained why drug policy reformers had been bitterly disappointed by President Obama’s performance during his first few years in office. With the notable exception of his support for shorter crack sentences, which Congress approved almost unanimously in 2010, Obama had done very little to de-escalate the war on drugs, despite comments prior to his election that led people to believe his administration would be less repressive than his predecessor’s.
To the contrary, the feds cracked down on medical marijuana more aggressively under Obama than they had under George W. Bush, even though he and his attorney general, Eric Holder, repeatedly promised the opposite. The administration continued to defend marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug, a category supposedly reserved for substances with a high potential for abuse that have no accepted medical applications and cannot be used safely, even under a doctor’s supervision. When the subject of marijuana legalization came up, Obama literally laughed at the idea. Finally empowered to release drug offenders serving sentences that he had said were too long, Obama issued only one commutation during his first term and was on track to leave behind the stingiest clemency record of any modern president.
Some critics of the war on drugs—a crusade that Obama had declared “an utter failure” in 2004—predicted that he would improve in his second term. Safely re-elected, he would not have to worry that looking soft on drugs would cost him votes, and he would finally act on his avowed belief that the war on drugs is unjust and ineffective. As Obama embarks on the third year of his second term, it looks like the optimists were partially right, although much hinges on what he does during the next two years. Here are some of the ways in which Obama has begun to deliver on his promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances: