Drug Policy ‘Buck’ Stops With Obama, Too
Politico reports that a coalition of advocacy organizations, including the National Black Police Association, has sent a letter to President-elect Barack Obama opposing the appointment of Rep. James Ramstad (R-Minn.) to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Ramstad, who is a recovering alcoholic, has been mentioned as a possible choice to direct the federal drug control policy as “drug czar.”
The coalition cites Ramstad’s past opposition to federal funding of needle exchange programs for intravenous drug users, as well as his opposition to legalized medical marijuana, and his failure to support eliminating sentencing disparities for crimes concerning crack and powder cocaine — which critics say disproportionately target African-Americans.
From the letter:
While we applaud Representative Ramstad for his courageous and steady support for expanding drug treatment access and improving addiction awareness, and honor his own personal and very public triumph over addiction, we have strong reservations about his candidacy for the drug czar position. In his twenty-eight years in the U.S. House, Representative Ramstad has consistently opposed policies that seek to reduce drug-related harm and create common ground on polarizing issues.
Representative Ramstad voted in 1998 in favor of making permanent the federal funding ban on syringe exchange, voted in 2000 to prohibit the District of Columbia from spending its own locally raised funds on syringe exchange programs and voted in 2007 against lifting the same DC ban, despite decades of research showing that syringe exchange programs reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS without increase drug use. Rep. Ramstad has also consistently opposed congressional efforts to stop the arrest of HIV/AIDS, cancer and other patients who use medical marijuana to ease their pain and suffering in states where it is legal.
Unlike you and Vice President-elect Biden, Rep. Ramstad has also failed to cosponsor any legislation eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, despite the fact that there were four different crack/powder reform bills before the U.S. House in the 110th Congress. A number of recent studies have found that long prison sentences are one factor driving disproportionate rates of HIV/AIDS infections in communities of color. A primary task of the next drug czar should be to deal with this and other issues related to overincarceration.
The coalition includes numerous AIDS-prevention and drug policy reform organizations.
Admittedly, I know almost nothing about Ramstad. If the letter accurately states his positions, he’s probably a poor choice to direct the new administration’s drug control policy.
However, if Obama is determined to put a bipartisan face on his anti-drug efforts, reformers may have several reasons to remain optimistic.
First, Obama and pending Senate confirmation, his nominee for attorney general, Eric Holder, are African-Americans who are very probably tuned in to the concerns of the black community regarding injustices within the legal system. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean they will be radical reformers, but they are certainly aware that the nation’s drug laws are a major reason black men are three times more likely to go to prison than college.
Second, Obama has publicly expressed his support for federal funding for needle exchange programs; legalized medical marijuana, albeit with conditions; and opposition to federal mandatory minimum sentences, like those that apply to crack cocaine — but no other illegal drug.
Finally, and most important, there is this comment Obama made Monday at a press conference in which he named his foreign policy team:
I will be setting policy as president. I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out, and I expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made. As Harry Truman said, “The buck will stop with me.”
Presumably, this will apply to all aspects of the new administration’s domestic and foreign policy, including drug control.