As President Obama has admitted since long before entering politics, he’s done his fair share of illegal drugs. In his 1995 book, Dreams From My Father, he wrote that he’d used marijuana and “maybe a little blow.” Despite this, he continues to oversee a federal war against others who’ve done the same.
If given the chance to confront Obama with one question in a public forum, this is the issue I would raise.
The question would not be “Do you think it’s hypocritical for you to support the War on Drugs, despite having used illegal drugs yourself in the past?” No, that’s too abstract, and besides, he could easily dodge the issue by saying his views have changed since then.
What I have in mind is something much more to the point:
“Should you have gone to prison for using cocaine and marijuana?”
Needless to say, his life would have been radically different.
Though it would be legally possible, he would almost definitely not be President today. He probably also would not have become a Senator or even a state legislator. It is unlikely that he would have taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, or have been an editor of the Harvard Law Review. In fact, he probably would never even have gotten into such establishments as Columbia University or Harvard Law.
No, Barack Obama’s relationship to the law would not have been as its executive, legislator, teacher, or even student. He would have been its victim. If he ever wrote a memoir, it would have probably talked about all the time he spent staring at the ceiling of his cell, watching the best years of his life go by.
Day after day, the threat of abuse – not only from fellow prisoners, but especially guards – would have loomed over him every waking moment. If that threat became actualized, he would have found little if any sympathy, living in a culture that talks about prison rape like it’s something people deserve for breaking the law.
Even once he left prison, prison wouldn’t leave him. Many people on the outside – especially potential employers – would view him as a risk. They would not see him as Barack Obama, the intelligent, eloquent, and capable man he would no doubt still be. They would only see him as Barack Obama, ex-con.
The law would join them in judging him differently. Not only would he have never gone on the campaign trail in 2008 or 2012, he wouldn’t have gone to the ballot box. That’s because he would have been legally barred from voting. Nor would have he been legally allowed to keep and bear arms, teach school, or do a number of other things.
He would emerge from prison a hardened man, into a world that was very hard to him.
Of course, Obama does not wish that he went to prison. He does not believe that his life would have gone better, or that his community’s failure to lock him up presented a social problem. Nor does he regret that the criminal justice system never made an example out of him.
However, countless other people have not had his luck. They have lived through the endless torture he would he would have lived through, had he been caught. When asked on the Tonight Show whether or not he’d grant some of them the grace he’d been given by legalizing marijuana, he laughed.
To paraphrase libertarian entertainer Penn Jillette’s forceful response to the incident: this is not a joke.
Of course, the point here isn’t just about Obama. I would wager to guess that something similar could be said about all drug war proponents. By which I don’t mean that all of them have done illegal drugs themselves, but that they probably know someone who has: Someone that they don’t wish would have gone to prison, someone that they think is probably better off having never gotten caught.
No drug war advocate I’ve personally encountered has really, seriously thought about drug laws in these terms. Obviously, in the abstract, they know that those laws mean people will go to prison. Yet when they make their case, it’s as if they think of prohibition as some passive force that just magically gives people another reason not to do drugs.
The issue must be brought into focus, and they must begin to confront that the laws they support mean that people will go to prison. Then they must own up to what it means for a person to go to prison. For most people, even if they don’t have any particularly strong libertarian scruples against victimless crime laws, this will be enough to recognize that we must end the drug war.