Obama … had a chance to interview "The Wire" creator David Simon this week. … "The challenge, which you depict in the show: Folks go in [to prison], at great expense to the state, many times trained to become harder criminals while in prison, and come out and are basically unemployable and end up looping back in," he said.
Simon agreed that even the small drug incarcerations have had a devastating impact. "They come back out completely tarred. They can't vote. They can't participate in their communities. They've lost track of families. Families have been destroyed," Simon said. "And if it was this draconian and it worked, then maybe we could have a discussion that said 'what we're doing is working.' Yes. It's terrible, and we're losing a lot of humanity but, hey, it's working," he continued. "But it doesn't work. It's draconian, and it doesn't work."
Obama made the point that it's becoming more of a nonpartisan issue. "There's an increasing realization on the left but also on the right, politically, that what we're doing is counterproductive," Obama said. "Either from a libertarian perspective, the way that we treat nonviolent drug crimes is problematic. And from a fiscal perspective, it's breaking the bank." – "Obama Tells Wire Creator that Drug Policy is Breaking the Bank," MarketWatch, March 26, 2015
For once, at least, President Obama put his finger on the serious consequences of an ill-conceived government policy. Just look what he told David Simon.
The war on drugs is creating "harder criminals" who are unemployable and often offend again.
"What we're doing is counterproductive."
"The way we treat nonviolent drug crimes is problematic."
"It's breaking the bank."
Most libertarians agree with Obama on these points. He even gives a little hat-tip to the "libertarian perspective" on the issue. Is he looking for common ground?
Maybe – but his other actions show a different attitude.
Loretta Lynch, Obama's nominee for attorney general, told senators in her confirmation hearings that she disagrees with the president on marijuana legalization.
When Sessions asked Lynch if she agreed with Obama's remarks about his marijuana use, she appeared to take a harder line than the president. "I certainly don't hold that view and don't agree with that view of marijuana as a substance," Lynch said. "I think the president was speaking from his personal experience and personal opinion, neither of which I'm able to share. But I can tell you that not only do I not support legalization of marijuana, it is not the position of the Department of Justice currently to support legalization, nor would it be the position if I were confirmed as attorney general." (Huffington Post, Jan. 29, 2015)
So, the president who thinks marijuana criminalization is problematic, counterproductive and breaking the bank chooses an attorney general who wants it to continue? This makes no sense.
This may simply be a case of Lynch saying whatever it takes to get confirmed, with tacit permission from the White House. Her personal opinion really doesn't matter; as attorney general, she will implement whatever policies the president establishes.
As for marijuana legalization, the president can't change federal law without cooperation from Congress. The GOP is moving in that direction. The Hinchey-Rohrabacher medical marijuana amendment passed in 2014, preventing the Department of Justice from spending money to block implementation of state medical marijuana laws. Sen. Rand Paul joined Democrats Cory Booker (NJ and Kirsten Gllibrand (NY) in introducing the CARERS Act, "To extend the principle of federalism to State drug policy, provide access to medical marijuana, and enable research into the medicinal properties of marijuana." Passage is not a sure thing (the bill's been referred to the Judiciary Committee at this point) but is certainly evidence that change is in the air.
Obama doesn't need to wait. He already has tremendous power to right this injustice. He proved it last month by commuting the sentences of 22 nonviolent drug offenders. This happened just days after his David Simon interview, so maybe he was testing the waters.
Presidents use their constitutional pardon power to release convicted criminals reluctantly and rarely. They should do it more often. The Framers gave presidents this authority for good reason. The executive can use it to stop the judicial and legislative branches when they run amuck – as they most certainly have on drug sentencing.
If President Obama really thinks mass imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders is so harmful, he can release them all tomorrow with a stroke of his pen. The "counterproductive" activity will end and we will no longer be "breaking the bank," to use Obama's own words.
He already did it for 22 drug offenders. Thousands more are waiting. Is Obama willing to take the inevitable criticism? We can only hope.
Now is the time, Mr. President. Do what you know is right.
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