State of the Union: A Curious Silence on Drugs and Crime

President Barack Obama greets Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill, right, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., center, and Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., following his State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 25, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.Ê

By Richard Hahn

Watching the first thirty seconds of the State of the Union Address last night, many people interested in the politics of crime and drug policy must have exclaimed, as I did, “Our issues!” when President Obama listed criminal justice reform and drug abuse as bipartisan priorities for the coming year. They may have been less impressed by the time the President allotted to those topics in the remaining fifty-eight minutes of his speech: exactly none. Beyond the initial mentions, the words “crime” and “drug” were absent from the President’s remarks, and the word prison was used only in relation to the closure of the Guantanamo Bay facility. After an unprecedented year of public interest in criminal justice and drug policy, this snub seems strange, and warrants a closer look at Obama’s record on drugs and crime as it relates to the legacy he hopes to leave.

Many people blame the President for the spike in murder rates in cities across the country last year. More specifically, they blame the political culture that now exists between urban communities and police entities, and they blame Obama for his perceived role in it. True, Obama’s tone toward policing displayed a bias for communities and individuals. True, his justice department approached police with greater scrutiny than had past administrations. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Heather MacDonald neatly defined what Obama’s detractors call the “Ferguson Effect,” by which cops shy away from active policing due to fear of social or legal ramifications. However, her argument is damaged, somewhat, by evidence that the murder rate in New York spiked unevenly early in the year and will be approximately consistent with the 2014 rate. It is also damaged by the contentions of District of Columbia officials that the 2015 murder rate in Washington spiked before the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, an event that should have led to more violent crime, according to the logic of the Ferguson Effect. Yet, as Jill Leovy argues in her recent book, Ghettoside, the bigger problem is not that there are too many cops, but that some of the cops we have are too poorly trained and too inequitably distributed to halt the deeper, more sinister cycles of black-on-black violence in poor communities. Later in his speech, Obama tried to marry the interests of two progressive bases, “the protester determined to prove that justice matters,” and supporters of a more moderate and nuanced approach, symbolized by the “young cop walking the beat,” policing bravely and respectfully. This somewhat uneasy marriage of radical passion and temperate policy is the legacy he hopes to leave on crime control.

The Obama administration has been less vocal about drugs. In its stated drug policy, the White House notes, “we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem.” The policy calls for reduced incarceration rates, greater focus on the public health aspects of drug abuse, and the implementation of new diversion and reentry programs. Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli entered public service as a coordinator of substance abuse programs in Massachusetts after battling his own alcoholism, and seems to reflect the administration’s avowed dedication to intervention and treatment. However, the White House has done nothing to aid the momentum of federal cannabis legalization except, perhaps, by being motionless. For now, at least, the debate over cannabis scheduling is at an impasse, and the best the administration has done to mitigate the situation has been to allow the states a measure of sovereignty on the issue of legalization. Perhaps this reflects the administration’s (and the drug policy community’s) uncertainty about the wisdom of cannabis legalization. It was telling, then, that the President so quickly departed from broader discussions of drug policy, both in his administration and in his speech. Time may prove it to be an unfortunate lapse in leadership.

Last night’s State of the Union Address proved, once again, that a President can accomplish only so much of real significance in eight years. Obama has been a progressive warrior. He passed healthcare reform against significant odds, and he will be remembered for that. His legacy as a tone-setter, ordained perhaps by the climate of his election, will also be remembered. However, he has been a shrewd politician, and in doing so he has displayed a wary conservatism on certain issues, even in the face of popular opinion. In last night’s address, he produced the issues of crime and drugs as a boxer produces a feint. The early mention implied a need to acknowledge the problems. But his subsequent silence reflected the incomplete state of his administration’s response to those problems and, perhaps, a little bit of the guilt he must feel as a result.

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