White House’s “National Drug Control Strategy” Reveals Shifting Priorities

May 24, 2010
The Obama administration's recently released drug control strategy has drawn some plaudits for shifting from prior administrations' policies of focusing almost exclusively on punishing suppliers.

Although Harold Pollack in an article for The New Republic says the policy, released last week, still focuses too much on the supply-side, he maintained, "America's drug policies just got a whole lot better." Pollack says the policy released by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) still continues to "spend billions on operations against drug suppliers which have little demonstrated value."

But, in his TNR article, Pollack says ONDCP head Gil Kerlikowske (pictured with President Obama) should be credited with limiting the "traditional blunderbuss rhetoric of American drug policy." Pollack continues, "This change is matched by Kerlikowske's personal inclusiveness and civility, traits that his Republican predecessor John Walters - who is known for alienating liberals and conservatives alike with his ecumenical disregards for opposing views - certainly did not possess.

Even before the release of the ONDCP's 2010 National Drug Strategy, Newsweek reported on a leaked version of it.

In a post for The Reality-Based Community blog, Professor Mark Kleiman discussed the leak, but also noted that the "new strategy can't completely avoid the trap of bowing in the direction of existing programs to get past agency review, and it has its share of pointless quantitative goals (some of them mandated by law). For example, there's no reason to think that the federal government has the capacity to reduce prevalence of drug use by 15%, or that raising the fraction of drugs seized on their way to the U.S. is either feasible or useful."

Kleiman, professor of Public Policy and Director of the Drug Policy Analysis Program at the UCLA School of Public Affairs, however, said the strategy provides a list of positives. He writes:

But the strategy offers a fairly impressive list of innovations to set off against those disappointments. Of course the ones that matter most to me testing-and-sanctions programs for drug-involved offenders (which the "formidable" Bennett and McCaffrey never dared to endorse) and David Kennedy's Drug Market Intervention program designed to eliminate problematic drug markets without mass arrests. Together, those two programs alone would radically reduce the links between drugs and crime, and yet because they're neither "supply" or "demand" programs and have no visceral appeal to either side of the culture wars, they've struggled to get attention.

Rather than just promising to pump more money into the existing drug-treatment machinery, the strategy focuses on the contribution the mainstream health-care effort could make toward dealing with substance abuse, in particular screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment (SBIRT). The money potentially available for his purpose under the health care bill, and in particular through the community clinic system, dwarfs the formal treatment system. The strategy aims to make sure that potential gets used; if it does, the effective balance between "supply" and "demand" spending would shift radically in fact, though it wouldn't change on paper.

[image via whitehousedrugpolicy.gov]