Obama Opposes Drug Legalization, But Hasn't Explained Why


Having already commented on what I liked about Obama's comments on Thursday, I think it's equally important to take a look at what was missing. By acknowledging legalization as an "entirely legitimate topic for debate," the President has elevated the conversation still further into the realm of mainstream political acceptance, but with that comes a heightened obligation for our political leaders to clearly articulate and defend their positions. Obama's polite, predictable response leaves unanswered most of the defining questions in the drug policy debate and ultimately fails to address the concerns that make this issue a top priority for a large segment of the American public.

I can't imagine anyone was surprised to learn that the President is "not in favor of legalization," but his very next words certainly fall far short of defending the drug war:

I am a strong believer that we need to think more about drugs as a public health problem. When you think about other damaging activities in our society, smoking, drunk driving, making sure you’re wearing seat belts, typically we’ve made huge strides over the last twenty to thirty years by changing people’s attitudes. On drugs, we have been so focused on arrests and incarceration and interdiction that we don’t spend as much time thinking about how we can shrink demand. This is something that within the White House, we are looking at very carefully.

For all the very careful looking that's apparently being done, it strikes me as odd that we had to win a series of high-profile online votes for two straight years before Obama felt a need to even attempt a straight-forward response. When it comes to things a sitting President might be expected to say about drug policy, some of this borders on awesome, but observations like these won't get us very far so long as they're prefaced on the condition that drugs have to remain illegal. The arrests will continue as long as police have something to charge people with, incarceration rates will climb as long as sentences remain harsh, and blood will spill as long as killers are the self-appointed CEOs of the international drug trade.

The brilliantly subtle incoherence of Obama's comments is that he basically pledges allegiance to prohibition, while simultaneously admitting that mass arrests and incarceration are a significant obstacle to the most effective approaches at our disposal. Though correct in one respect, such talk serves only to confuse anyone endeavoring to understand why failed strategies still enjoy the bulk of our drug control budget. Aggressive law enforcement either works or it doesn't, and once you admit that it's made the problem worse, you can't turn around and defend it as part of a balanced approach. If you're baking a cake, you're not going to put poop in it, regardless of the quantity. Yet, here we have a cake recipe that consists of mostly poop, and they're telling us it might turn out ok if we carefully arrange slices of pineapple and kiwi on top.

This debate can't continue much longer without our drug war allies around the world becoming hopelessly disillusioned by an exported American ideology of drug prohibition that can't even be confidently defended by the nation that designed and disseminated it.

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We have a moral duty to expose blind hate and ignorance

We all have our victories and defeats as regards fear, but most of us strive not to let fear rule our hearts or our choices. Being free means being free to live and love as if death had no power over us. It is our ethical and moral duty to expose blind hate and ignorance by shining eternal light and love, sending fear and hatred fleeing back to the shadows from whence it came.

We explore outer space with various forms of space craft, but many choose to explore inner space via nature's abundant chemistry - an infinite journey into the heart of God. Whatever, we are here to explore this glorious universe. The Prohibitionist's brand of hateful, choking pseudo-Conservatism is the antithesis of all that. Like a lion who cannot grasp that he can do more than walk in a circle the size of the cage he's been freed from, the prohibitionist is incapable of exploration beyond the boundaries of his own fear, prejudice and loathing. We are all free to choose how we walk our own path, but when we choose to go beyond this by supporting drug-war demagoguery, to the point of even threatening others with imprisonment and physical violence, we loose the right to expect any form of respect from the once free and prosperous society that we are helping to totally destroy.

We're about to lose all semblance of that once ordered, prosperous and safe society. Myself, along with many others, have been debating prohibitionists on this for many years. We have shown what destruction prohibition has wrought on all the civil institutions of this once great nation, -we've always provided facts and statistics - they, the prohibitionists, have countered with either lies, personal abuse or even serious threats of violence.

Ending the insanity of drug prohibition by legalized regulation, respecting the rights of the responsible users and focusing on addiction as a sickness, like we do with alcohol and tobacco, will save the U.S. economy along with countless lives and livelihoods. Prohibition continues unabated for shameful political reasons. It cannot, and never will, reduce drug use or addiction.

On additction

I agree with your sentiments, except that addiction is a sickness. Addiction is the inability of a person to extend their will over time. We cannot call a person who willingly performs an action, an addict. Addiction is a mere weakness of will. That is, when you try to stop, but then later cannot. A cigarette smoker who never thinks to quit is not determined as to whether or not he/she is an addict. I say this because they will themselves to smoke and do so, they are not inconsistent in what they freely choose to do. When does a person become addicted? I would say it is when the person cannot exercise free will anymore, and thus exhibits a weakness of will. The smoker who wants to quit, but does not, exhibits a weakness of will and may be called an addict. Again, I say this because it is not fair to say that all smokers are addicts, because it is an exercise of freedom to smoke in the first place.

You may argue that I am wrong because physical addiction is real; however, I would argue that the line between physical and psychological addiction is very thin. You would not call a meat-eater addicted to meat, but I can guarantee that some people who try to stop will exhibit withdrawal symptoms. Others, may be able to stop without issue. I would ask, is withdrawal a physical or psychological reaction? Probably, a little of both, mutually informing the other.

Now, if you agree so far, or at least think I have a potentially valid argument. And notice, I am not making scientific claims, but instead using philosophical analysis with respect to the terms we use - addiction, weakness of will, withdrawal symptoms, and sickness. Addiction is not a sickness, but a weakness. In the case of some substances the body has a violent reaction to withdrawal. However, the decision to quit, and to quit for good, is up to the individual. If we take substances like cannabis, tobacco, and alcohol then I think people give excuses for continuing use when they want to stop. My point is this. Treat people as rational beings that need to take responsibility for their actions, and teach them how to overcome weakness. Once we place addiction into the category of sickness, then the responsibility that is on the addict is altered to a lesser degree.

I don't think will power is the only thing that matters here

I agree that we should not conceptualize addiction as something that a person has no control over (purely a sickness), but neither should we conceptualize it as something that they have full control over (purely a weakness of will). I think it has to be put in the middle, with greatly varying degrees of being closer to one extreme or another.

I agree with your view on how meat is addictive (and i'd say all food is, for that matter, and all sorts of other things in life, too), and I think comparisons between non-drug addictions and drug addictions are very important in order to put the entire concept of addiction in a truer perspective than it so far has been. We can also reflect on the definition of drug while we're at it, and the lines between recreational drugs, medicinal drugs, and foods (which i think are blurrier than people tend to realize).

Ah yes, but you have made my point for me

When you say..."but neither should we conceptualize it as something that they have full control over (purely a weakness of will). I think it has to be put in the middle, with greatly varying degrees of being closer to one extreme or another. "

You see, I believe placing addiction into the category of "purely a weakness of will" just is the middle ground between full control and the no control of "purely a sickness". For to say that a person always has full control is to deny that addiction exists altogether, which I have contemplated as a live option, but ultimately dismiss due to the evidence. That is, if we agree that addiction is a weakness of will then we are admitting that the person no longer has full control. However, the person has the potential to regain full control either on their own or with aid. In other words, the claim that addiction is a weakness of will urges the addict to help themselves, while claiming that they may need aid from others to overcome it. Imagine two types of thinking:

1) I have a sickness. I need help. I cannot do this on my own.

2) I have a weakness. I could use some help, so that I may regain control.

Now, I realize we could debate about how to accurately state 1 & 2. However, my point is that if we educate people to look at addiction as a weakness of will, then I believe those who become addicts and those who treat addicts will engage in types of treatment with a reduced frequency of relapse. Furthermore, I think it will encourage responsible use in order to maintain free will and control. I think this will happen because the whole way of thinking about addiction will change and empower people to see themselves as free and rational agents; rather than the victims of an unfolding and deterministic universe that are bound by statistics.

I think i completely agree

I think i completely agree with you, but I would use a different terminology. When I saw the word weakness I read into it a kind of judgement of the person, or an inferiority of some sort. But i see now that's not necessarily what you meant. I thought "well, it's definitely unfair to call someone an addict who's freely choosing to use, but it's also unfair to call them weak if they can't stop using".  I would prefer another word; "inability of will"  i think would be good.

I do like what you're saying, though. I think it effectively addresses an extremely important point. I have trouble with the psychological/psychiatric establishment that calls a person's mere intention or desire to use (and even their intention to adopt harm reduction measures or innovative ways of modifying their use patterns, forms of administration, etc, in order to function better, be healthier, be happier, etc) "addictive behavior", or "addictive thinking". It's as if they thought that no one could ever have a free intention to use drugs, that anyone who wants to use them does so because the drug is controlling their minds and making them want to use it. They want to completely deny a person's free will. 

Great disucssion

First, thank you for this exchange, its been intellectually stimulating.

I think a change in terminology would be fine. I only use "weakness of will" because it is a common theme in philosophical literature throughout history with respect to discussing certain aspects of human actions and the decision making process.

I completely agree that the mental health professionals (and American's in general) have altered the definition of addiction or addictive behavior and thinking to such a degree that it includes anything that people do even semi-habitually for the sake of whatever desire or intention that a person may have. Did you happen to see that lady on CNN with her book "Addict Nation" or something? What a joke. She says we are all addicting to everything we do basically.. texting, video games, shopping, food. People have been buying into absurd theories like hers for years now, and it makes it hard for the theory I propose to be taken seriously. You are right, and its a shame that drug users are automatically assigned "addict." But, its like Plato's main thesis in the Republic says, and I'm paraphrasing.. Its better to a perfectly just man who is hated by all with freedom denied than it is to be an perfectly unjust man who is loved by all with all the freedom to do unabashed evil.

I forgot something

Although I love your last paragraph (and to tell you the truth, you put some ideas in a much clearer way than i had been able to think of them), in your second paragraph you mention "the potential to regain full control". I don't think we can ever have full control; not even in everyday, non-drug-related behaviors. I think behavior inherently has an aspect of automation to it  (on the immediate, short term, and long term), and pleasure (or happiness or bliss, or success, etc), has a reinforcing quality to it. Sometimes the automation is stronger than at other times, but it is always present to some degree. 


I have disagreed with many philosophy professors on how much control or free will humans really have. I personally think we have much more freedom than science can tell us; however, the quality of freedom I believe in is far different than the common sense population believes in. Self-reflection and the ability to insulate oneself in the mental realm. Yet, your point about automation is taken, and for the sake of argument, I will qualify my statement about regaining full control to mean "to whatever degree of control we potentially have" can be regained.

He hasn't said why

because he cannot come up with a legitimate reason for continuing the drug war.

Shrink "demand" through serving size

Maybe I'm only rearranging the pineapple on top, or maybe it's our job to help supply Obama with strategies for surviving the next rounds with pack-a-day Boehner et al.  Anyway, isn't it truly Conservative to try to "shrink demand" by promoting one-hitters (wikiHow: Make Smoke Pipes From Everyday Objects) so that it will be publicly accepted as "norml" to vape a 25-mg. single toke rather than torch up a 500-mg. fatty every time you want "a smoke"?  This goes for cannabis, tobacco, peppermint or anything, whether you say it is a drug or an herb.

I don't know enough to judge the Iran Contra allegations; my conspiracy theory is that the heroin plague from Afghanistan is "collateral damage" from the mostly-Republican-supported 1970's suppression of the Afghan hashish industry which, once revived, could pacify the planet (Islam at its best).  By the way, the Uprising in Egypt follows by a few months upon a harsh Mubarak government crackdown on hashish (mostly imported from Morocco through Tunisia), and we should watch for signs that Obama will encourage a new government to reverse that fatal last-straw policy.

.....But do Cannabis

.....But do Cannabis Consumers deserve treatment?


And do prohibitionist liars deserve salvation? 

...we now take you back to our topic...

Sorry, friends, but that's a pretty disjointed discussion of addiction and addiction is going off topic to the post at hand. I believe the post was about Obama and his recent statements in light of certain incontrovertible facts about the Drug War which we all know to be true but which Obama and his ilk are trying to ignore and obfuscate.

I think Obama is intelligent enough to know that the Drug War is an abomination but is too much of a pragmatist to get out in front of the politics on drug law reform. Witness all his accommodations with so-called conservatives on so many other issues under the rubric of "bi-partisanship." 

The politics have been swinging our way for a while now. If the Repeal of alcohol prohibition is any guide it could hit critical mass and go over the top extremely quickly at some point. If that happens most pols would be all for legalization. So we just have to keep fighting to convince people that reform will be better for their interests (kids!) than Prohibition has been. We also have to ridicule Drug War, Inc. so that folks are embarrassed to hold to it.

Now, back to the subject of addiction. Since I've been an opioid addict for 39 years I have some definite opinions on the subject but addiction is a complicated thing. Volition is involved, at least at first, but then the addict doesn't have much choice in the matter. There are genetic influences which have been found and proven but there are also very real "psychological" components as well. I think we should just agree that addiction is a syndrome that severely affects folks in a negative way and leave it at that. What's far more important is what we're going to do about it. Treatment in this country is far too limiting (many more modalities must be made available), of limited availability, and far too expensive. It's a disgrace, especially considering the amount spent on drug issues for law enforcement and "interdiction."

addiction is a bit off topic, but it is relevant

First, the discussion is not disjointed, because it makes sense if read in order. The first response made a comment about it that I disagreed with, so I addressed it. Isn't that what you do in blogs? Make comments on the story and other comments, as well? Finally, politicians are opposing legalization for all sorts of reasons, and the threat of "addiction" is in the vocabulary very often. So, it does need to be addressed.

In addition, the point of the discussion on addiction is that it has been oversimplified and applied too broadly. You yourself even say that it is actually complicated, but then go on to say that "we should just agree that addiction is a syndrome that severely affects folks in a negative way and leave it at that". Sorry, but I will not and have not left it at that, because we are then back at the problem of including too many activities and substances back into "addiction". Every point you made about addiction was made in our discussion, from losing the ability to choose to changing the way we treat addiction. I am sorry with your long struggle as an opioid addict, but what has been said so far is for the benefit of all people. I do not know why you have taken such a "brush off" stance to what has been said here.

No, it isn't.

According to the people who invented the drug war, the most addictive drugs, in descending order, are nicotine, heroin, caffeine, cocaine, alcohol and marijuana.  When a drug warrior pretends that prohibition has anything to do with preventing addiction, ask him why three of the most addictive drugs are legal.  Ask why peyote and LSD, which are not the least bit addictive, are banned.  Ask why it's a felony to use someone else's prescription Ibuprofen.

Ask why, if they're so concerned with preventing addiction, convicted drug users in treatment are given addictive psychotropic drugs to treat the PTSD caused by the drug raid that got them into treatment in the first place.  Ask why, if addiction to a dangerous drug warrants violent police intervention, the families of suspected alcoholics and cigarette smokers aren't included in the cure-by-deadly-force. 

Drug addiction may or may not mess up a life.  Drug raids are engineered to destroy them completely.  The only relevance addiction has to the drug war is that of a smokescreen.  Because while drug policy reformers are busy discussing the meaning of addiction, the very real carnage of the drug war continues unabated. 

Did you read the posts??

No, the people who invented the drug war, starting in 1938, did not list the substances in that order - do some research.

I agree that addiction is not relevant to the drug war, but it is to the discussion on this blog - which is what I meant. Addiction is relevant to the discussion only because the politicians bring it up. I agree with all your points. The reason I brought up addiction is due to the fact that it is used in arguments for support of the drug war. I do not agree with it, and it is relevant to discuss it, so we can shed light on it and call bullshit on politicians. So your, "No it isn't" subject is unwarranted. Next time read the discussion, before you set yourself up to disagree with someone who actually agrees with you.

Unfortunately I don't think

Unfortunately I don't think the change is likely to happen as fast as it did for alcohol prohibition because most people do not use drugs the way most people used alcohol back then. The reason, also, that we don't spend more money on treatment is because most people don't understand any other drugs other than alcohol. 

About addiction, there are broader ways of talking about it and there are more specific ways. Addiction to one drug is often a drastically different thing to addiction to another drug. 

"the reason we don't spend

"the reason we don't spend money on treatment is because most people don't understand any other drugs other than alcohol"

Although, alcoholics don't have good access to treatment either, that i know of, so maybe that's not really the reason. But still, it is the reason drugs are illegal.

No, it isn't.

The prohibition of drugs in America has its roots in racism.  It is, and always has been, a tool of oppression.  Treatment for addiction, like any other medical or mental health treatment, should be available for those who decide for themselves that they need it.  Freedom of choice would also force counselors to learn about drugs other than alcohol or lose their jobs.  But as long as judges are diagnosing and probation officers are prescribing, most substance abuse treatment centers will continue to exist only as extended daycare facilities with counselors whose only qualifications are their own toxic relationships with drugs. 

That's all true, but when

That's all true, but when present day reasonable people are discussing the issue, inevitably fear and misconceptions about drugs come into the conversation. In terms of every other aspect of the debate, reasonable people will come around, but that last hurdle is always going to be difficult because understanding drugs one is not familiar with is not easy. The addiction issue, the way it is conceptualized, is a very big part of the oppression.  It is purposely not something the powers that be want us to get a chance to truly study in an honest way. If you tell them about how alcohol and cigarettes are addictive, they'll just say "yeah, well, whatever". What they do to drug users in south east asia, where they put them into those concentration camps and basically turn them into slaves in order to "rehabilitate" them, is only the extreme of something that is not absent here in the "civilized" world. Drug users are considered to be infra-human, even in the developed world. There are a lot of interests by a lot of people in keeping drugs illegal, and racism is still probably the biggest. I agree with that. But the oppression is not just based on race, and not even just on class, it is also based on drugs. And even after we educate all the reasonable people about all the other issues, there will still be a final hurdle, and that is to get people to learn to see the illegal drugs in a new light. 


"...and racism is still probably the biggest."

The watered-down forces of the racism of the past, that is (which are still with us and still powerful).

[another] clarification

"see the illegal drugs in a new light. "

(which is not to say that they're benign.)

i'm just saying....

"Unfortunately I don't think the change is likely to happen as fast as it did for alcohol prohibition because most people do not use drugs the way most people used alcohol back then."

Just to be clear, I think the change is going to happen faster than prohibitionists expect. All i'm saying is that not as fast as the end of Prohibition. 


Prohibition is just one portion of the population telling another portion what they can't do. Restriction on people should be about causing others unwanted harm. Your claim that it will not help America and that it will have negative effects doesn't make sense, because people are using drugs anyway, and the illegality of it has not deterred use. Furthermore, the illegality of drugs just is what causes harm to society. Restrict and decriminalize the use harder drugs, and legalize cannabis it is as simple as that. Society did not fall apart after alcohol was re-legalized, and society won't fall apart if cannabis is re-legalized. And the government does what is best for itself and for those with money...its not about what is best for the people. The government has too much control, and if you think the gov should have more control, then it will prove my point - fast food nation won't end - and that is by far the biggest killer. So go ahead, hide behind your prohibitionist attitude, which has never worked in human history. But hey, American's are too complacent to ever make actual change - the few who do are silenced.

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