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End the Drug War, Mr. President

Yes, we know we’re tempting fate. But we figure there’s a 50 percent chance Obama will get reelected, and in any case he needs an agenda to campaign on. So we’ve asked a number of TNR writers to explain what they think Obama should focus on for the next four years if he wins in November. Click here to read the collected contributions.

If he were to earn a second term, Barack Obama should at least initiate the process of ending the War on Drugs. One reason is that the War on Drugs has been a massive failure by any serious estimation. Sixty-seven percent of our nations’ police chiefs consider it so. Drugs do not get cheaper or harder to buy. People do not stop dying. However, there is another reason that Barack Obama should feel especially compelled to act on this issue—his identity as America’s first black president.

If black America still considers racism a pressing issue, it is primarily because of the strained relationship between young black men and police forces. In my twelve years of writing on race and racism, I have seen that the police are the keystone of modern black alienation, to an extent rarely clear to outsiders. The massive number of black men in prison, ringingly decried in widely read books such as Michelle Alexander’s hit The New Jim Crow, stands as a resonant rebuke to all calls to “get past racism” or stress optimism. Persistence and hard work does work for many black men—but, against the background of these other systemic injustices, their achievements are often thought of as the products of luck (not least by themselves).

The primary reason for this ongoing conflict between blacks and the police is the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs is what has made it normal for black children to grow up in single-parent homes, their fathers away in prison for long spells. The War on Drugs discourages young black men from seeking legal employment, with selling drugs an ever tempting alternative for someone with a poor education. The War on Drugs brings firearms into black lives: Policing turf for selling drugs entails using guns, which then go on to become tools for general maintenance of pecking order. 

If it were no longer possible to earn money selling drugs on the street, we would see the same trend among young black men as we saw among young black women after the welfare reform of 1996: They would reckon forthrightly with their lives and—ideally with help from the government to do so—get jobs. They would not encounter paradise. A bad economy would be harder on them than most. However, anyone who says that the current situation is better has an eccentric notion of compassion or progressivism. Real progressivism would entail cultivating a generation of young black men that doesn’t think of white cops as an enemy. (Right now, they all too often do: Read here and note also the comments.) From there, America as a whole will turn a corner.

Obama’s drug czar Gil Kerlikowske has claimed that the Obama administration already has ended the War on Drugs—but what he means is that they have simply decided not to call it that. Under Obama’s watch, punishment for drug possession and use has been funded more highly, while funds for treatment under the Department of Education have been slashed a third. Drug arrests during Obama’s first year in office were higher than they were in George Bush’s first year. This is a thorough abandonment of the liberal promise of Obama’s presidency. 

Downsides of drug legalization will be inevitable. Mark Kleiman and others predict somewhat increased rates of addiction. But that should not be dispositive from a policy perspective: No one suggests that today’s rates of alcoholism in the United States—or the nastier ones in Russia—are arguments in favor of 1920s-style Prohibition. Moreover, if we are forced to deal with some collateral damage in a successful effort to alter the mindset of a generation of young black men and thus transform the country’s perpetual race debate, it would be well worth it—not least, for the sake of the President’s legacy.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic.