Administration’s Drug Control Policies Hew Closely to Failed ‘War on Drugs’

April 26, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

Despite the rhetoric to move beyond a perpetual “war on drugs” the Obama administration remains mired in the tough-on-drugs mindset and its Justice Department seems befuddled by the states that have legalized small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report revealing that the administration’s goals set out in 2010 have largely not been met. The report noted that the Office of National Drug Control Policy and other federal agencies established “seven Strategy goals related to reducing illicit drug use and its consequences by 2015.” GAO continued, “As of March 2013,” its “analysis showed that of the five goals for which primary data on results were available, one shows progress and four show no progress.”

But, as The Huffington Post’s Matt Sledge reports drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy has just released another drug control plan that builds on the policies the GAO has said are not working. More troubling, Sledge notes that the drug office’s budget “still devotes less than half of it funds to treatment and prevention. The GAO found that prevention and treatment programs are ‘fragmented’ across 15 federal agencies.”

In an April 24 post on its web site, the Office of National Drug Control Policy bemoans “illicit drug use,” claiming “drug-induced overdose deaths now surpass homicides and car crashes as the leading cause of injury or death in America.” It also declares “we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem.”

The language from the administration’s drug control office is softer than rhetoric about the “war on drugs,” which the Nixon administration launched with the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) several decades ago. But the administration’s drug control office is not embracing drug legalization or even any changes to the CSA, such as removing marijuana from the list of drugs deemed as dangerous as say heroin.

The muddled message from the Obama administration -- not helped by its Justice Department’s silence on how it will respond to Colorado and Washington, where officials are crafting measures to implement and regulate the recreational use of marijuana -- is preserving tough-on-drugs policies.

The so-called war on drugs has been incredibly costly, helped create the era of mass incarceration, and is widely viewed by the public as a failure. During the duration of the drug-war the nation has spent billions of dollars and imprisoned millions, disproportionately minorities.

A recent report from the Brennan Center notes the large number of people imprisoned for non-violent, drug related crimes. Nearly “half the people in state prisons are there for drug crimes,” the report states. “Almost half the people in federal prisons are there for drug crimes. Only 7.6 percent of federal cocaine prosecutions and 1.8 percent of federal crack cocaine prosecutions are for high level trafficking. This focus on nonviolent, low-level offenses clogs the criminal justice system, offers minimal public safety benefits, and distracts from justice resources – including public defenders’ time – from public safety priorities, such as serious violent crimes.”

Though the administration has tweaked the language, it is still hewing closely to the war on drugs. The GAO report says the administration’s strategies are not working. Numerous states have or are creating medical marijuana industries and two are now working to implement the will of voters to legalize small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. On the marijuana front, University of Colorado Professor Sam Kamin says there are several steps the administration could take to ease the conflict between federal and state laws, such as allowing states to opt out of enforcement of the CSA.

As Art Carden wrote for Forbes last spring, “It’s high time to end prohibition.” Many Americans agree, and likely wondering why it is taking the Obama administration so long to catch up.