Toward a Public Health Approach to Drug Policy

Alex Kreit Professor of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law

March 16, 2009

ACS is pleased to distribute "Toward a Public Health Approach to Drug Policy," an Issue Brief by Alex Kreit, Assistant Professor and Director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. On March 11, 2009, President Barack Obama announced that he will nominate Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske to be the next director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, also known as the "Drug Czar." Chief Kerlikowske's nomination comes as we approach the 40th anniversary of the "war on drugs," which followed the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. Professor Kreit argues that, after nearly 40 years, "it is becoming increasingly clear that our current drug control strategy has not worked." He reaches this conclusion after discussing a variety of studies and surveys that detail the amount of money that has been spent by the United States as part of this "war," and the results we have gotten in terms of the rate of drug use in general, use of drugs by young people, and the ease of obtaining drugs, particularly in comparison to other countries that have used different approaches to addressing these issues. He also discusses the significant impact that U.S. drug policy has had on the size and composition of our prison population.

Professor Kreit calls on the President and the new Drug Czar to change the focus of our nation's drug policy from a punitive approach to one that looks at and addresses the problem through the lens of public health. In a discussion of recent surveys and election results, Professor Kreit sees the opportunity for politicians to seek fundamental change in our approach to combating drug use because the views of voters have been changing, and American citizens are now more open to these changes than they were in the 1980s and 1990s. He acknowledges that "[t]here is no magic bullet that can solve the problem of substance abuse." Nevertheless, Professor Kreit believes that "[t]here are ... a number of readily identifiable reforms that can help begin to set us on the right track and build a foundation for more significant improvements in the future." In particular, he suggests shifting funding from programs that have unsuccessfully focused on limiting the supply of drugs to programs that have proven successful at reducing demand, and seeking changes to federal law to remove provisions that are hampering the government's ability to pursue effective programs. In addition to adopting the changes he proposes, Professor Kreit concludes by advocating for the creation of a commission to conduct a comprehensive reevaluation of U.S. drug policy in light of the significant amount we have learned from other countries and four decades of our own experience with the current approach.

Read the full Issue Brief here: Toward a Public Health Approach to Drug Policy