Taking a First Step Toward a New National Drug Policy

June 11, 2010
Guest Post

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assumed his job a little over a year ago on a promising note by saying that the time had come to discard the outdated and unhelpful terminology of a "war on drugs."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.

These numbers do not tell the whole tale, however. Taking a closer look at the strategy, we find some more room for optimism and signs of change. Even though the overall budget for supply-reduction remains unchanged, for example, the strategy emphasizes tactics that are less likely to result in the incarceration of drug offenders. In particular, as Professor Mark Kleiman highlights, the drug control reveals that the Department of Justice is in the process of replicating and funding "drug market intervention" programs, an approach that have achieved some success in addressing especially disruptive open-air drug markets "without mass arrests."

Perhaps even more important than the numbers in this year's strategy, however, are signals that the administration sees this as just the first piece in a more lasting policy change. In his interview with the AP linked above, Kerlikowske bluntly acknowledged that some people will "say the drug budget hasn't shifted as much as it should have, and granted I don't disagree with that. We would like to do more in that direction." He explained, however, that "[n]othing happens overnight."

There is good reason to believe that this is more than just rhetoric. After all, 40-years into the "war on drugs," the bureaucratic structure that has arisen to support it cannot easily be reconfigured overnight.

As is so often said about drug addiction itself, the first step to fixing our failed drug strategy is to admit we have a problem. So, while those of us who believe the current drug control strategy leaves much to be desired are right to point out its shortcomings, we should not underestimate the importance (and difficulty) of taking that first step. And, whatever else might be said about the new drug control strategy, I think it is clear that the administration has admitted that the past strategy has not worked and has taken the first-step toward a new approach.