By Alex Kreit, assistant professor of law and director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, Calif. Kreit is author of an ACS Issue Brief, "Toward a Public Health Approach to Drug Policy."
With the recent release of the Obama administration's National Drug Control Strategy, and drug policy increasingly making headlines with California's marijuana legalization measure set to appear on the ballot in the fall, now is a useful time to take a quick look at where our nation's drug policy appears to be heading. Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Gil Kerlikowske assumed his job a little over a year ago on a promising note by saying that the time had come to discard the outdated and unhelpful terminology of a "war on drugs."
Since that time, the Obama administration has made a number of noteworthy policy shifts. The administration announced that they will no longer arrest and prosecute medical marijuana patients and caregivers in compliance with state medical marijuana laws (though it bears mentioning that some local offices may not always be faithfully abiding by this policy). Obama's Justice Department has worked to reduce the "100-to-1" sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine. It has also lifted the ban on federal funding of syringe exchange programs.
In announcing its new drug control strategy last month, the administration emphasized the importance of shifting away from the "war on drugs" mentality and treating drug abuse primarily as a public health issue. Kerlikowske (pictured) told The Associated Press, for example, that "[i]n the grand scheme, [the current strategy] has not been successful" and that forty years after Nixon began the drug war "the concern about drugs and the drug problem is, if anything, magnified, intensified."
Unfortunately, at least for the time being, the strategy does not quite match the administration's vision and continues to fund many of the very same programs that have "not been successful" at the same or greater levels as in previous years. As Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance, has pointed out, contrary to the administration's effort to paint the strategy as a major step toward treatment and away from incarceration-oriented policies, 64 percent of the $15.5 billion federal drug control budget will be spent on interdiction and law enforcement while only 36 percent will go to treatment and prevention. This is virtually the same supply-and-demand allocation as under President Bush's final drug control strategy. And, if we go back further, we find that the percentage of President Obama's budget earmarked for demand reduction is actually less than in recent past. In 2002, 46 percent of the total drug control budget was spent on demand reduction efforts, a full 12 percent higher than under Obama's budget.