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The question of decriminalizing some or all illegal narcotics, to a lesser or greater extent, then regulating and taxing the ensuing trade is a serious matter. There are fair arguments on all sides (because there is range of how far we could go with this, there is arguably more than just one "side") of the debate, but it cannot be dismissed as a pointless, irrelevant, or trivial matter. Yet that's precisely what Barack Obama did at a recent town hall meeting where, based on the reaction, he was surrounded by like-minded apologists for the current structures of power and liberty. Way to break outside the beltway and take it to the people, Mr. President.
Let's run quickly through some of the reasons why it's reasonable to regard the current "war on drugs" as causing more trouble than it solves. Both the violence and corruption associated with illegal drugs are more directly connected to the prohibition of drugs than to the use of drugs. The failure of drug laws to eliminate drug use has encouraged politicians to pass ever more draconian anti-drug laws, thus leading both to unnecessary suffering through harsh sentences for non-violent offenses and a decline in respect for the law when people see police and courts consumed with these cases.
Prohibition also undermines basic constitutional liberties by encouraging police to circumvent laws regulating search and seizures. No-knock warrants combined with paying for tips has led to innumerable raids on the homes of innocent people, including quite a few deaths at the hands of some over-zealous police who no longer seem to care very much about "protecting" and "serving" the public. Prohibition is a nightmare for national security, enriching those who already have a grudge against America and fueling resentment in others who are harmed by American efforts to suppress drug production.
Prohibition damages public health because there is so much resistance to the very idea that any illegal drugs might have any benefits — the prohibition mindset allows for only one response to drugs, no matter who might get harmed in the process. Prohibition is just as bad for the budget, consuming huge amounts of government resources, damaging the productivity of people caught up in the prohibition web, and excluding entire sectors as possible sources of revenue.
These reasons may not be enough to convince someone to support ending prohibition, but they are more than enough to cast doubt on prohibition and deserve stronger arguments in response. To put it another way, they are serious and substantive enough to earn something equally serious and substantive in return.
To be fair, it must be acknowledged that Obama was asked about a policy which is still viewed with suspicion and even fear by so many people in America. The case against prohibition may deserve a serious and substantive response, but that's hard to do when so many people's have been taught to react to drugs in a one-dimensional way: just say no. Opponents of prohibition thus have two hurdles: before they can convince people of their arguments, they must also convince people that any arguments should be considered at all.
Support for varying degrees of decriminalization and/or legalization has grown in recent years, but it's still a relative minority position with fierce opposition. That, however, is an argument for Obama to not wholeheartedly endorsing the idea — it's not an argument to dismiss it as a joke. Remember, decriminalization and legalization aren't just about eliminating one isolated restriction on people's liberty. It's not just about allowing people to get high as legally as they get drunk, though that's what so many tend to think about.
The question Barack Obama was asked ties into medical questions, sustainable farming and manufacturing (with hemp), new sources of tax revenues, and more. His dismissive and even flippant response suggests that he's unaware of all this; a serious response, even in the negative, would have indicated that he understands the complexity of the matter and simply arrived at a different conclusion. Something along the lines of "I understand why people argue for this idea and they make some good points, but I just don't agree with their conclusions" would have been a reasonable, respectful response. It would have avoided scaring apologists for the failed war on drugs while signaling to supporters of legalization that they should keep working on their arguments to make a better case. So why didn't he do that?
Sadly, that's a question which a lot of progressives have been asking on a lot of issues. Barack Obama has been touted as a progressive president, but it's hard to find examples which support such a label. Indeed, the Congressional Progressive Caucus — the largest ideological group among Congressional Democrats — is the only major faction which Barack Obama has not met with. Obama has managed to find time to meet with conservative and moderate Democrats, all of whom have been working against progressive policies, but not with the more reliable supporters of progressive policies.
Yes, I know it's necessary to reach out to less reliable supporters in order to make a political agenda work, but that doesn't require ignoring or taking for granted your regular supporters. It's not a progressive value — or even smart politics — to present yourself as a progressive who somehow keeps ignoring other progressives. This, combined with Harry Reid whining that liberal Democrats shouldn't pressure moderate Democrats to stop standing in the way of progressive legislation, leaves the distinct impression that Democratic leaders across the board are consistently looking for ways to ditch progressivism in favor of a more conservative agenda.