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Obama Drug Strategy Emphasizes Health, Prevention Issues

By Charlene Porter | Staff Writer | 01 May 2012
Gil Kerlikowske at podium, headphones to ears, Mexican flag to his right (AP Images)

Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske listens to translated comments from his counterparts during a meeting last month to develop a concerted anti-drug campaign.

Washington — The Obama administration is presenting a new “21st-century approach to drug policy,” based on the view that the 30-year-old “war on drugs” fails to recognize the complexity of the problem.

The new strategy is “progressive, innovative and evidence-based and represents the future of drug policy not just in the United States, but all over the world,” said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), speaking at the Center for American Progress in Washington May 1.

The social cost of the U.S. drug problem is severe in terms of health and safety, but the problem also consumes enormous public resources as drug offenders fall under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system. The new strategy is based on three facts upheld by science, research and experience: addiction is a treatable disease; substance abusers can recover; and reforms in criminal justice can break the cycle of drugs leading to crime leading to incarceration and rearrest.

With a review of these facts, Kerlikowske said, the Obama administration saw a need for a different approach to drug policy, “one that treats drug addiction as a disease and promotes a criminal justice system where drug-related crime is addressed in a fair and equitable manner for every American.” The drug policy director said public health and safety systems can be redirected so that individuals with drug problems are recognized and helped before their activities become a matter for the criminal justice system.

Kerlikowske said the Obama administration has invested more than $31 billion in drug education and treatment programs since 2009, more than the budget for federal law enforcement. With expansion of the “drug court” system, 120,000 nonviolent drug offenders have been directed into treatment and rehabilitation per year without going to jail.

“We cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem,” said the ONDCP director, who has an almost 40-year history in law enforcement. He came to this position in the Executive Office of the President after serving as the police chief in Seattle.

On the international front, the Obama administration has allotted more than $1.2 billion to development programs urging farmers into production of alternate, profitable crops while providing them with more security from drug gang pressure to continue to grow the coca used in cocaine or marijuana. Law enforcement efforts in the 2012 strategy also target violent transnational criminal organizations, Kerlikowske said, creating greater cooperation between agencies at the national, state and local levels.

Nations that have been U.S. partners in trying to control drug trafficking have also recognized that the old approaches were not working. “Let’s look at the success in Colombia,” Kerlikowske said.“Reductions in violence, in their economy and security … the reduction in coca.”

The drug policy director said he has visited rural Colombia and talked directly with a farmer who reports greater security growing crops promoted as alternatives to coca in U.S. assistance programs rather than being under the threat from drug cartels. “As a result of having this steady income [from legal crops], he said, it’s better for my family and it’s better for the safety and security of my village,” Kerlikowske said.

Other Obama administration efforts to work with international partners on drug trafficking include implementation of new counternarcotics strategies on both the U.S.-Canada border and the U.S.-Mexico border. The ONDCP has also developed stronger international counterdrug partnerships with other Western Hemisphere nations, Russia and Afghanistan.

As the U.S. government applies new resources and strategies to treat substance abuse and eliminate drug trafficking, consumption of illicit drugs in the United States has declined by roughly one-third over the past 30 years. In the last six years, methamphetamine use has declined by half, and cocaine abuse has dropped by almost 40 percent.