WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Thursday said America’s long-running prohibition of drugs serves an important purpose, but advocated for “shifting resources” away from incarcerations of “nonviolent, first time drug offenders.”
“I think this is an entirely legitimate topic for debate,” Obama said from the White House during an interview broadcast live on YouTube.
But, he added, “I am not in favor of legalization.”
His remarks came in response to a videotaped question from retired deputy sheriff MacKenzie Allen about whether the drug war may be counterproductive by way of fueling violence in market pushed underground.
“We have to go after drug cartels that are not only selling drugs but also creating havoc on the US-Mexican border,” Obama said. But he added that drugs should be treated as a public health issue and that the United States would benefit by spending less time and money jailing offenders.
“On drugs, I think that a lot of times we have been so focused on arrests, incarceration, interdiction, that we don’t spend as much time thinking about how we shrink demand,” he said.
The Associated Press reported last May that “[a]fter 40 years, the United States’ war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.”
“The president talks a good game about shifting resources and having a balanced, public health-oriented approach, but it doesn’t square with the budgets he’s submitted to Congress,” said Neill Franklin, a retired Baltimore narcotics cop and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).
“Still,” Franklin added, “it’s historic that the president of the United States is finally saying that legalizing and regulating drugs is a topic worthy of discussion.”
The question about the drug war, which came from a member of LEAP, was voted the most popular ahead of the interview. All but a few of viewers’ 200 top-rated questions touched on different aspects of the drug war.
Obama’s remarks reflect an unchanged stance but different tone on the issue than in 2009, when he was asked about drug legalization and responded: “I don’t know what this says about the online audience — but, no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow the economy.”