Tomorrow, Barack Obama’s historic presidency will come to an end. It is hard to believe that he will no longer be our President. I have both smiled and wiped away tears when watching President Obama’s farewell speeches, press conferences and exit interviews.
With Obama’s term coming to a close, I wanted to reflect and thank him for his efforts to roll back the failed drug war and fix our broken criminal justice system. Here are some of his accomplishments.
Colorado and Washington made history in November 2012 when they voted to legally regulate the production, distribution and sale of marijuana. But there was much uncertainty about how President Obama and the federal government would respond. Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder gave a qualified green light for Washington and Colorado to move forward and implement their laws via the August 2013 Cole memo. Over the next several years, more states and jurisdictions legalized marijuana – Oregon, Alaska, and Washington D.C. in 2014 and California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada in 2016. President Obama deserves credit for allowing the will of the people to stand and for allowing these states to move away from marijuana prohibition.
President Obama and his attorney general spoke out forcefully against mass incarceration and mandatory minimum drug laws and made criminal justice reform a signature issue of Obama’s second term. Holder urged US attorney generals to not charge mandatory minimums for drug offenses when it could be avoided. President Obama spoke out against the 100-to-1 crack/powder sentencing discrepancy and although Congress wasn’t able to eliminate the discrepancy, they did reduce it to 18-to-1 with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act. Obama and Holder pushed hard for bipartisan legislation that would roll back mandatory minimums. Attorney General Holder called for the repeal of laws that prohibit millions of felons from voting.
President Obama and his Drug Czar Michael Botticelli urged people to think about drug addiction as a health issue instead of a criminal issue. Obama’s Affordable Care Act expanded treatment to millions of people who never had access. Botticelli called for harm reduction strategies to deal with our overdose crisis, including expanding access to naloxone, the overdose reversal drug. They also embraced methadone and other medications for people struggling with opioid addiction, as well as syringe access programs to reduce HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other preventable diseases.
Obama broke ground by talking openly about his own personal history of drug use. He was matter-of-fact about his marijuana use and even admitted to using cocaine in his youth. He shattered the myth that all drug use is problematic and could hold someone back from ambition and success. In a seminal interview with the New Yorker, President Obama said that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol and spoke about racial disparities in marijuana arrests.
President Obama started off slow and was criticized for not using his clemency and pardon powers. But then, in 2014, the administration made it clear that it wanted to step it up and took the unprecedented step of encouraging defense lawyers to suggest inmates whom the president might let out of prison early. Over the last couple of years he moved aggressively and granted clemency to close to 1,600 people, more than the last 11 administrations combined.
I don’t want to overstate President Obama’s criminal justice reform accomplishments. Many of these efforts fell short and there is so much that was not accomplished. We still have a mass incarceration crisis and there are record numbers of people dying from preventable overdoses. But when we look at the Trump administration getting ready to take over and the people he is surrounding himself with, particularly Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, it is obvious how much we are going to miss President Obama’s efforts to fix our criminal justice system.