By Jerome Corsi, Ph.D.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – As the first installment of this two-part series, this article questions whether President Obama’s public policies regarding drug crimes in America have fanned the flames of a national drug epidemic, making more difficult the jobs of federal, state, and local law enforcement seeking to enforce U.S. drug laws. Under specific critique are his use of the pardon authority and his efforts to release drug offenders from prison, as well as his attitudes regarding decriminalizing marijuana.
Obama gives pass to drug offenders
During his presidency, Barack Obama granted clemency to 1,927 individuals, a figure that includes 1,715 commutations and 212 pardons – the largest number of any president since Harry S. Truman.
While not typically reported by the Department of Justice (DOJ), there is a clear political bias in Obama’s use of the presidential pardon power. Approximately 98 percent of Obama’s commutations were for prisoners convicted on drug offenses, with more than 60 percent of all commutations charged under conspiracy laws.
Again, while not apparent in the DOJ-reported data, most of Obama’s commutations involved individuals involved in crimes related to the distribution and/or production of drugs, a disproportionate number of whom were inner-city African-Americans.
As evidenced in the argument typically made by the American Civil Liberties Union, the political left argues that federal drug laws drafted under conspiracy principles allow low-level drug users (especially in the African-American community) to be charged with the more serious “drug trafficking” crimes that logic dictates should be reserved for more serious criminals distributing higher up in the drug cartel hierarchy.
This goes hand-in-hand with a campaign being waged by the political left to de-criminalize drug use, as evidenced by statistics maintained by NORML, a group dedicated to the decriminalization of marijuana. Twenty-one states now have passed laws decriminalizing marijuana possession, such that first-time offenses are often treated as no more than a traffic ticket, with no arrest, prison time, or criminal record.
Obama’s attitudes toward drugs were certainly influenced by his use of marijuana and cocaine in high school and college – facts he admitted openly in writing his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, while claiming he stopped the use of both in his college years.
Now that Obama has left the White House, the revisionists have begun to correct the record with the revelation that Obama continued to use cocaine through his early 20s. Given Obama’s expanding personal history of drug use, we should not be surprised that he tipped the scale in favor of drug users during his eight years in the White House.
Epidemic of drug-related deaths
The mainstream media like to portray the current epidemic of drug deaths in the U.S. on the increase in opioids being inappropriately prescribed by physicians to patients seeking to control pain as they grow older. However, the number of heroin-related deaths more than tripled between 2010 and 2015, with 12,989 heroin deaths in 2015.
Another under-reported fact is that synthetic opioids (other than methadone) such as fentanyl (an opioid analgesic that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine) have largely been responsible for the increase in opioid-related deaths. According to the CDC, deaths rose from 5,544 in 2014 to 9,850 in 2015.
According to the DEA, the amount of heroin seized each year at the southwest border of the U.S. has increased each year since 2000, with approximately 500 kilograms seized each year during 2000-2008, an amount that quadrupled to 2,196 kilograms in 2013, and increased to 2,524 kilograms in 2015.
“Over the past 10 years, the drug landscape in the United States has shifted,
with the tripartite opioid threat (controlled prescription drugs, fentanyl, and heroin) having risen to epidemic levels, impacting significant portions of the United States,” the DEA’s 2016 National Drug Assessment reported.
“While the current opioid crisis has deservedly garnered significant attention, the methamphetamine threat has remained prevalent; the cocaine threat was in a state of steady decline, but appears to be rebounding; and due in part to the national discussion surrounding legalization efforts, the focus of marijuana enforcement efforts continues to evolve,” the DEA report cautioned.
“Drug poisoning is the leading cause of injury death in the United States. Drug poisoning deaths are currently at their highest ever recorded level and, every year since 2009, drug poisoning deaths have outnumbered deaths by firearms, motor vehicle crashes, suicide, and homicide.”
According to the DEA, in 2014, approximately 129 people in the United States died every day from drug poisoning – a number that has only increased since then.
The Mexican connection
The DEA stresses that Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) have increased their role supplying illegal drugs to the United States, with distribution within the U.S. being facilitated by criminal gangs. The El Salvadorian-originated MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) gang distributes multi-ton quantities of illegal drugs brought into the country along lucrative smuggling corridors – these drugs come from large regions in Mexico that TCOs use for the cultivation and production of illicit drugs.
Yet, under President Obama, relaxed border enforcement went together with a national policy that had Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) release over 86,000 criminal aliens between 2013 and 2015.
Statistics developed by the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies shows convictions involving dangerous drugs ranked third among known offenses committed by illegal aliens released by ICE during the Obama administration. These were preceded only by DUI convictions involving liquor and other non-specified traffic offenses not involving liquor.
This is especially alarming given a 2014 Bureau of Justice Statistics study of recidivism of prisoners released from state prisons in 2005; the report showed that within five years of release, 76.9 percent of drug offenders were arrested for a second crime.
The 2016 DEA National Drug Threat Assessment reports the Sinaloa Cartel, originating in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, controls various regions in Mexico, particularly along the Pacific Coast, maintaining the most expansive international footprint among the six Mexican cartels now active in distributing drugs in the United States.
The Sinaloa Cartel exports and distributes wholesale amounts of methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin in the United States by maintaining distribution hubs in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago, among other cities. The Sinaloa Cartel smuggles drugs into the United States through crossing points located along Mexico’s border with California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
Cultural shifts complicate law enforcement efforts
The DEA’s 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment devoted 22 pages to marijuana – a drug that remains illegal under federal law – with most of those pages focused on explaining that law enforcement efforts to combat illegal uses of marijuana are frequently compromised by the idiosyncrasies of state-level medical and recreational marijuana laws, as well as by “media attention” to marijuana issues that makes it more difficult to enforce marijuana laws and prosecute people for violating them.
After noting that marijuana remains the most widely available and commonly used illegal drug in the U.S., the DEA report laments the impact of the decriminalization movement.
“Many states have passed laws allowing the cultivation, possession, and use of marijuana within their respective states,” the DEA 2016 Drug Threat Assessment notes.
“Due to these varying state laws, as well as an abundance of media attention surrounding claims of possible medical benefits, the general public has been introduced to contradictory and often inaccurate information regarding the legality and benefits of marijuana use,” the DEA report continues. “This has made enforcement and prosecution for marijuana-related offenses more difficult, especially in states that have approved marijuana legalization.”
The DEA 2016 report concludes that state-legislation measures have had several observable effects, including increases in marijuana use, increases in domestically produced marijuana, shifts in demand for higher-quality marijuana, increases in seizures of marijuana concentrates, increases in the number of Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) extraction laboratories, and declines in the overall amount of Mexico-sourced marijuana seized at the southwestern border.
The report also makes clear the threat from Controlled Prescription Drugs (CPDs) is “prevalent and, every year since 2002, the number of deaths attributable to CPDs is outpaced for those for cocaine and heroin combined.”
The DEA further notes that recent data suggest that the abuse of these drugs has lessened in some areas, though the number of individuals reporting current abuse of CPDs is still more than those reporting use of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, MDMA, and phencyclidine (PCP) combined.
This reflects patient confidence that they will not be prosecuted for reporting they abused a prescribed drug by not taking the drug as specified by the prescribing physician – an attitude not dissimilar to concluding that a state failing to pass a medical-marijuana law is simply behind the times.
The DEA assessment continues to stress that with the slightly declining abuse levels of CPDs, data indicate there is an increase in heroin use, as some CPD abusers have begun using heroin as a cheaper alternative to the high price of illicit CPDs or when they are unable to obtain prescription drugs. Both CPDs and heroin remain highly addictive, typically requiring greater quantities to achieve the same level of high as the drug use becomes more habitual.
The prison-release program
In a report published on October 2, 2014, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) noted that the DEA arrested 30,476 suspects for federal drug offenses in 2012, while state and local law enforcement arrested 1,328,457 suspects for drug offenses. The report commented that in many cases, federal agencies assist state and local drug agencies with drug arrests, and suspects are referred for state prosecution and vice versa.
The CRS also noted that most drug arrests made by state and local law enforcement were for possession, not for sale or manufacture. In contrast, most federal drug arrests are for trafficking offenses rather than possessing. Finally, over the past 25 years, most of DEA’s arrests have been for cocaine-related offenses.
On October 6, 2015, the Obama administration’s Department of Justice announced plans to free nearly 6,000 prisoners – the largest one-time release of federal inmates – to reduce overcrowding and to ease the punishment for drug crimes.
The move was set into motion by the U.S. Sentencing Commission which voted unanimously in 2014 to reduce federal drug sentences by an average of two years, launching what the commission called a new “Drugs Minus Two” policy.
What this move reflected was a push the Obama administration intensified in its second term to decriminalize drugs, without officially announcing that any such policy had been formally determined by the White House.
For law enforcement across the country, the release put thousands of drug criminals back on the streets, and it’s expected that a high percentage of them will return to prison for another drug offense.
By releasing these criminals, the Obama administration was fanning the flames of a cultural shift toward increased tolerance of drug trafficking and possession that was certain to intensify the current epidemic in drug-related deaths.
As to crowding in the prisons, the impact of the Obama early-release program was negligible.
According to Bureau of Prison statistics, there were 188,797 total federal inmates as of May 4, 2017, approximately half of whom (46.3 percent) were incarcerated for drug offenses. As of December 31, 2013, there were an estimated 1,358,875 persons in state or federal correctional institutions, with 16 percent listed as having a drug crime as their most serious crime.
Releasing every drug offender in state and federal prison would only bring the incarceration rate from about 725 people per 100,000 population in 2015 to 625 per 100,000 – a significant drop, but one that is estimated to shrink the overall U.S. prison population by only about 14 percent. Even with this reduction, the U.S. incarceration rate would still have led all nations, with Turkmenistan at 583 per 100,000, followed by the U.S. Virgin Islands at 542 and Cuba at 510.
Underlying all the statistics is the reality that President Obama’s push to release drug criminals from prison and commute the sentences of drug offenders was heavily weighted to grant preference to crack cocaine and methamphetamine users, two drug offenses where sentences were heavily weighted by race and class.
The fact remains that over 90 percent of federal crack defendants are African-American, with the ratio of convictions in recent years being about 2,000 African-Americans convicted on crimes involving crack cocaine versus 60 white offenders.
The next article in this two-part series will consider the issue of the impact of race and class on drug offenses in America, as we expand the investigation to ask whether the public-policy motives behind President Obama’s efforts to decriminalize drug offenses include a political objective to attack law enforcement as a social-control mechanism tasked by a racist society to oppress minorities in America.
Jerome R. Corsi, Ph.D. is the Washington bureau chief for Infowars.com. He is the author of six best-selling books, including two New York Times number-one best sellers, Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry (2004, co-authored with John O’Neil) and The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality (2008). Jerome received his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University in 1972, and currently resides with his family in New Jersey and Washington, D.C.