Today the Obama administration announced a shift in its priorities regarding drug enforcement.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced a revised approach to “confronting the complex challenge of drug use and its consequences,” putting more resources into drug prevention and treatment.
The new drug control strategy boosts community-based anti-drug programs, encourages health care providers to screen for drug problems before addiction sets in and expands treatment beyond specialty centers to mainstream health care facilities.
At Huffpo, Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, applauds some of the changes:
The Obama administration has taken important steps to undo some of the damage of past administrations’ drug policies. The Justice Department has played an important role in trying to reduce the absurdly harsh, and racially discriminatory, crack/powder mandatory minimum drug laws; Congress is likely to approve a major reform this year. DOJ also changed course on medical marijuana, letting state governments know that federal authorities would defer to their efforts to legally regulate medical marijuana under state law. And they approved the repeal of the ban on federal funding of syringe exchange programs to reduce HIV/AIDS, thereby indicating that science would at last be allowed to trump politics and prejudice even in the domain of drug policy.
The new strategy goes further. It calls for reforming federal policies that prohibit people with criminal convictions and in recovery from accessing housing, employment, student loans and driver’s licenses. It also endorses a variety of harm reduction strategies (even as it remains allergic to using the actual language of “harm reduction”), endorsing specific initiatives to reduce fatal overdoses, better integration of drug treatment into ordinary medical care, and alternatives to incarceration for people struggling with addiction. All of this diverges from the drug policies of the Reagan, Clinton and two Bush administrations.
Nadelmann also criticizes the the budget numbers because they point to a continued waging of the “drug war”: “64% of their budget – virtually the same as under the Bush Administration and its predecessors – focuses on largely futile interdiction efforts as well as arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating extraordinary numbers of people”
LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) also criticizes the budget numbers for the same reason as Nadelmann:
The drug czar is saying all the right things about ending the ‘war on drugs’ and enacting a long-overdue balanced strategy focused on a public health approach,” said Neill Franklin, a former Baltimore cop and incoming executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). “Unfortunately the reality of the budget numbers don’t match up to the rhetoric. Two-thirds of the budget is dedicated to the same old ‘war on drugs’ approach and only a third goes to public health strategies. My experience policing the beat tells me that it’s certainly time for a new approach, but unfortunately this administration is failing to provide the necessary leadership to actually make it happen instead of just talking about it.
The strategy devotes 64 percent of the budget to traditional supply reduction strategies like enforcement and interdiction while reserving only 36 percent for demand reduction approaches like treatment and prevention.
StoptheDrugWar joins the chorus, arguing that the budget allocation needs to match the new rhetoric:
President Obama’s first National Drug Control Strategy offers real, meaningful, exciting change,” [Matthew Robinson, professor of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University and coauthor (with Renee Scherlen) of "Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the ONDCP"] summed up. “Whether this change amounts to ‘change we can believe in’ will be debated by drug policy reformers. For those who support demand side measures, many will embrace the 2010 Strategy and call for even greater funding for prevention and treatment. For those who support harm reduction measures such as needled exchange, methadone maintenance and so forth, there will be celebration. Yet, for those who support real alternatives to federal drug control policy such as legalization or decriminalization, all will be disappointed. And even if Obama officials will not refer to its drug control policies as a ‘war on drugs,’ they still amount to just that.
In the past, I’ve cited many reasons and sources that paint the “drug war” as ineffective and immoral. See, especially LEAP’s videos here. Also see the powerful arguments raised by conservative Judge James Gray. Gray has commented that “the most harmful thing about marijuana is jail.” In this post, I refer to John Richardson’s shocking statistics: The amount we spend every year on the “drug war” is enough to pay for universal health care. The insanity goes on and on.
I am buoyed by the recent change in federal rhetoric, however. I am glad that many people (a large proportion of whom are in favor of the use of street drugs) are finding the courage to speak out against the status quo. I would hope that this is the beginning to the end to a failed policy that is based on shrill ideology that results in needless violence and stigmatization and the arrests of almost 800,000 people every year for marijuana charges.
In my opinion, one of the most direct and courageous statements on the “drug war” was made by travel guru Rick Steves: