President Obama’s Track Record on Drug Policy

President Barack Obama signing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

President Barack Obama signing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. (Source: Wikimedia)

President Obama has made great strides in healthcare reform for people who use drugs, but his approach to criminal justice reform leaves a lot to be desired.

Obama recently granted clemency to 214 prisoners serving time for nonviolent drug crimes, bringing his grand total of commutations to 562 - more than those of the previous nine presidents combined. Obama has also achieved other relevant key policy aims, such as the expansion of addiction treatment, but he seems to have fallen short of securing permanent sentencing reform.

In 2004, four years before being elected, Barack Obama described punitive drug law enforcement as an “utter failure”. He made a significant attempt to combat this during his first term, as he signed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) 2010. This legislation effectively reduced the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine offences and powder cocaine offences, a disparity that was widely perceived to be racist.

The FSA was successful to an extent; four years later, in 2014, the US Sentencing Commission reported that the number of “crack cocaine offenders” sentenced in the federal system had reduced by around half. However, in the same year, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 50 per cent of sentenced inmates in federal prisons were incarcerated for drug offences. The FSA was, evidently, only a small step.

There have also been significant changes to addiction treatment and harm reduction under Obama’s leadership. Under, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) 2010, nearly 32 million Americans gained access to substance abuse and mental health treatment, as the law requires insurers to cover substance-related illnesses. The ACA also ensures that individuals leaving prison have access to care after their sentences are complete – a vital provision for former inmates with drug misuse problems. Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, described the ACA as “an absolute game changer”.

In 2015, the Obama administration introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act (SSA), which is yet to pass through either Congressional house. The SSA aims to reduce mandatory life sentences, while simultaneously making the FSA retroactive. Despite bipartisan support in Congress, and support from the Senate Judiciary Committee, the SSA is unlikely to be enacted before the end of 2016.

Earlier this year, President Obama lifted the federal funding ban on needle exchange programmes, in light of the high levels of HIV infection rates among people who inject drugs. He has also attempted to tackle injecting drug use and heroin misuse more broadly, possibly due to the number of annual heroin overdoses tripling over the past five years.

Most recently, in July 2016, he signed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), which is aimed at strengthening prevention, treatment, and recovery efforts. Among its tenets, it outlines increased provision of naloxone, the life-saving medication that prevents opioid overdoses.

Although President Obama has made some significant changes to healthcare and treatment for people who use drugs, his approach to criminal justice reform has been insufficient. Despite commutations, he has – thus far – failed to introduce long-term reforms to the United States’ prohibitionist model of drug policy. With only a few months left of his presidency, the future of US drug policy will be up to his successor.

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