Does Obama Believe He Should Have Gone to Prison?

As President Obama has admitted since long before entering politics, he’s done his fair share of illegal drugs. In his 1995 book, Dreams From My Father, he wrote that he’d used marijuana and “maybe a little blow[1].” Despite this, he continues to oversee a federal war against others who’ve done the same.

If given the chance to confront Obama with one question in a public forum, this is the issue I would raise.

The question would not be “Do you think it’s hypocritical for you to support the War on Drugs, despite having used illegal drugs yourself in the past?” No, that’s too abstract, and besides, he could easily dodge the issue by saying his views have changed since then.

What I have in mind is something much more to the point:

“Should you have gone to prison for using cocaine and marijuana?”

Needless to say, his life would have been radically different.

Though it would be legally possible, he would almost definitely not be President today. He probably also would not have become a Senator or even a state legislator. It is unlikely that he would have taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, or have been an editor of the Harvard Law Review. In fact, he probably would never even have gotten into such establishments as Columbia University or Harvard Law.

No, Barack Obama’s relationship to the law would not have been as its executive, legislator, teacher, or even student. He would have been its victim. If he ever wrote a memoir, it would have probably talked about all the time he spent staring at the ceiling of his cell, watching the best years of his life go by.

Day after day, the threat of abuse – not only from fellow prisoners, but especially guards – would have loomed over him every waking moment. If that threat became actualized, he would have found little if any sympathy, living in a culture that talks about prison rape like it’s something people deserve for breaking the law.

Even once he left prison, prison wouldn’t leave him. Many people on the outside – especially potential employers – would view him as a risk. They would not see him as Barack Obama, the intelligent, eloquent, and capable man he would no doubt still be. They would only see him as Barack Obama, ex-con.

The law would join them in judging him differently. Not only would he have never gone on the campaign trail in 2008 or 2012, he wouldn’t have gone to the ballot box. That’s because he would have been legally barred from voting. Nor would have he been legally allowed to keep and bear arms, teach school, or do a number of other things.

He would emerge from prison a hardened man, into a world that was very hard to him.

Of course, Obama does not wish that he went to prison. He does not believe that his life would have gone better, or that his community’s failure to lock him up presented a social problem. Nor does he regret that the criminal justice system never made an example out of him.

However, countless other people have not had his luck. They have lived through the endless torture he would he would have lived through, had he been caught. When asked on the Tonight Show whether or not he’d grant some of them the grace he’d been given by legalizing marijuana, he laughed.

To paraphrase libertarian entertainer Penn Jillette’s forceful response to the incident: this is not a joke.

Of course, the point here isn’t just about Obama. I would wager to guess that something similar could be said about all drug war proponents. By which I don’t mean that all of them have done illegal drugs themselves, but that they probably know someone who has: Someone that they don’t wish would have gone to prison, someone that they think is probably better off having never gotten caught.

No drug war advocate I’ve personally encountered has really, seriously thought about drug laws in these terms. Obviously, in the abstract, they know that those laws mean people will go to prison. Yet when they make their case, it’s as if they think of prohibition as some passive force that just magically gives people another reason not to do drugs.

The issue must be brought into focus, and they must begin to confront that the laws they support mean that people will go to prison. Then they must own up to what it means for a person to go to prison. For most people, even if they don’t have any particularly strong libertarian scruples against victimless crime laws, this will be enough to recognize that we must end the drug war.

The Cost of the War on Drugs: the Example of France

France is among the most strict European countries in the repression against drugs. As a result, the question about the real cost of this repression of illegal substances arises is a particularly pertinent one. For all those who do not want to make the effort of listening to me on why the War on Drugs is an expensive failure which discriminatory and dangerous, here is the short answer:

about €2 billion

The only reliable figure I found in my research comes from an information report by the Public Policy Evaluation and Control Committee titled “Assessment of Combating the Use of Illicit Substances” from the 20th of November 2014. This report (which I strongly recommend you scroll through) describes the total failure of repressive legislation and, in addition, a cost analysis.

The report indicates that:

“It is impossible to make a precise consolidated statement of public expenditure devoted to the policy of combating the use of illegal substances …”

The committee nevertheless concludes that by combining 26 different programs dedicated to the War on Drugs, we get to the figure of about 2 billion euros (2,000,000,000; just so you visualise that well) per year, which in 2014 was 0.1% of GDP.

PREVENTION (15%)

Prevention costs amount to €300 million, of which €4 million in primary education (1.3%), €274 million in secondary education (91.3%), €9 million in public sports policy (3%) and 11 million in the public health sector (3.6%).

CARE (41.5%)

The costs of care, not including medical care related to consumption, but addiction treatment (including treatments imposed on those who committed drug-related offences) subsidised by the state as part of the anti-drug policy, stacks up to 830 million euros. The committee has quantified this number with reports that have been published since 2011 by the medical and social institutions, the hospital sector for hospital consultations or addictology liaison teams, treatment reimbursements, etc.

ENFORCEMENT (42.5%)

The costs of complying with the repressive laws amounts to 850 million euros, which is the largest part of the expenditure in the fight against illegal substances. They consist of: police 255 million (30%), customs 252 million (29.6%), gendarmerie 167 million (19.6%), legal services (justice department) 101 million (11.9% 6%) and national marine 21 million (2.5%).

Is it not time to give the money wasted in prohibition back to the taxpayer and to overturn the policies that benefit only cartels? Is not time for individual freedom and individual responsibility to thrive?

After all, if we cannot trust people with freedom, how can we trust people with power?

This article was translated into English from a French article on Bill’s Blog.

“Do Not Arrest!” ESFL Protests Drug War in Georgia

Early this month, European Students For Liberty (ESFL) leaders in Georgia helped organize a rally in Tbilisi to promote marijuana decriminalization. Hundreds of young Georgians showed up in support. The protesters chanted “Do not arrest!” Some carried signs with messages like “End the drug war!” and “Pot is not a crime!” The now-annual protest brought together youth, politicians, journalists, non-governmental organizations, student groups and others in major Georgian cities including Tbilisi, Batumi, Zugdidi and Bolnisi. ESFL leader Mariam Gogolishvili summed up the aims of the rally: “We demand the government to make a change to legislation from which citizens will not bear criminal responsibility as a result of using cannabis or any products derived from it.”

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Some carried signs with messages like “End the drug war!” and “Pot is not a crime!”

Under Georgian law, the use or possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use is punishable with an administrative fine. Repeated possession as well as the preparation, production, purchase, transportation, and sale of marijuana are all criminal offenses punishable with jail time. Thankfully, many young people in Georgia — like young people everywhere — have realized that criminalization is not the answer when it comes to managing drug use.

No matter the country, the evidence is clear: treating addiction as a medical issue and drug use as a personal choice leads to less violence, greater autonomy for individuals, and better results for addicts looking to get clean. In 2008, Georgia spent nearly 18 million GEL ($8 million USD)  to implement the portion of the criminal code which established street-based drug testing. And for what? In this study, the authors point out that this is a ”dramatically wasteful” policy which has little effect on the drug-use habits of Georgians.

Sadly, this is a familiar story around the world. Most of us know our government’s approach to drugs is inefficient and uninformed. As SFL has expanded internationally, it has only become more clear how one state’s drug policies support and influence the approach taken in other states. The drug war is a truly international phenomenon, and drawing it down will take the effort of young people in every country touched by this destructive global regime.

Progress is being made in Georgia today. Before the rally, a Georgian MP, Goga Khachidze, initiated a bill, which, if approved, will decriminalize possession and use of marijuana, but will leave it as an administrative offense. The bill will go to committee in the next few weeks and pro-decriminalization activists are busy making their case to legislators.

SFL-ers pose with signs featuring the 2nd June Movement logo.

SFL-ers pose with signs featuring the 2nd June logo.

The conservative majority party, known as the “Georgian Dream coalition” remains categorically opposed to decriminalization and has been trying to avoid discussion with supporters. Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili cites paternalist concerns:  “We must discuss how to create a better, happier and a stronger future for our youth. We must care about their way of life.” Many political leaders hold such misguided approaches to the issue of drug use, thinking that punishment discourages addicts and that this will keep people safe. Mariam and the pro-decriminalization advocates have a different concern:

We don’t want the existence of such a drug legislation which does not respond to the challenges of modern civilization and is inhuman. Once again we ask the government to stop persecuting people because of marijuana use.

And this is where ESFL is making a major difference. In addition to helping organize rallies, ESFL leaders are making a point of talking to the media about the issues involved and have hosted a number of smaller events aimed at education and discussion. Here are a few videos of Mariam addressing the media.

For those who don’t speak Georgian, the first video is focused on ESFL’s activities and how to get involved. In the second, Miriam explains the importance of the international approach and how ESFL serves as a platform for organizing across national borders. ESFL also hosted a number of lectures, debates, and even a Liberty Picnic to spread the word about marijuana decriminalization and to combat stereotypes and myths about drug use and effective management.

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ESFL hosted panels on drug decriminalization at Georgian universities as well.

The drug war will not end tomorrow — in Georgia, or anywhere — but it may be over sooner than we think, thanks to the hard work of activists around the world. We hope next year’s rally will be even bigger and commend Mariam and her colleagues for the work they’re doing to educate and advocate on what has become a defining issue of our generation.

End the Drug War is a single-issue campaign produced by Students For Liberty and supported by partners to raise awareness about the failed War on Drugs and to show policymakers all over the world that the millennial generation is united against the violence, waste, corruption, and curtailment of freedom perpetuated by the drug war.

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