Obama Drug Policy: Strict Rules Show President is Fighting a Losing Battle

On Wednesday, the White House released its 2013 National Drug Control Strategy, a 104-page briefing about the administration’s goals and strategies to reduce drug consumption, trafficking, and production. However, this strategy does not address the reality of America’s drug situation and suggests that the Obama administration will again be fighting a losing battle.

President Obama and R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the National Drug Control Policy, claim that the strategy is a “21st century approach,” but as the Drug Policy Alliance points out, their strategy has changed little since the inaugural National Drug Control Strategy was written in 2010. The report ridicules proponents of drug liberalization by stating, “one side of the debate suggests that drug legalization is the “silver bullet” solution to drug control” and calling legalization “neither … humane, effective, or grounded in evidence.”

What, exactly, do they propose as their “21st century approach” that is supposedly more humane, effective, and grounded in evidence than legalization?

There is one chapter in the report that they got mostly right: their focus on drug prevention and education dissemination about the risks involved in drug use. They correctly assess that drug prevention is more cost-effective than treatment and that substance abuse has serious health risks for youth. However, they weaken their argument for drug prohibition when they group alcohol, tobacco, and drug prevention education programs together (Chapter 1, Section 3). They use the same rhetoric to talk about health risks with tobacco and alcohol, both legal substances, as they use to talk about illegal drugs. In this section, they fail to distinguish what makes illicit drugs categorically different — and illegal — from other harmful but legal substances, such as alcohol and tobacco.

Further examination of the rest of the report also shows that the 2013 Strategy talks a big game in their opening statements and introduction, but that their detailed strategy does not reflect the same rhetoric and is not aligned with reality.

For example, they laud their efforts in criminal justice reform, noting that they “provide approximately 120,000 offenders each year with drug treatment instead of prison” through the use of drug courts.

There are 2,734 drug courts in the U.S. that try individuals with substance abuse problems. Through the drug court system, a judge listens to the individual’s case, and the judge and his or her team doles out a remedy, consisting of “judicial interaction,” “monitoring (e.g., drug testing) and supervision,” “graduated sanctions and incentives,” and “treatment services.” While this is better than indiscriminately throwing a drug user in the slammer, the system still refers to the users as “offenders” and puts them through the humiliating process of facing a judge in court. This is not the appropriate response to a public health problem; it still treats addiction as a crime.

Furthermore, they veer from reality and make no mention of the recent marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado. It still remains a mystery how the federal government will react to these state initiatives. Instead, they set unrealistic goals of “eradicating marijuana cultivation” and “stopping indoor marijuana production” (Chapter 5, Section 3). Their report continues to measure success by the number of plants they have eradicated, a metric that shows neither the total quantity of plants cultivated (no one really knows this) nor the amount of marijuana consumed by individuals. It is an insufficient measurement on both the supply and the demand sides, and shows their ignorance to state initiatives and public opinion regarding marijuana.

The 2013 National Drug Control Strategy will not be the most humane nor effective way to solve our nation’s drug problem, and the evidence that it relies on does not comprehensively illustrate the drug problem that the U.S. faces. A successful 21st century drug control strategy will consider drug legalization and more humane policies, truly treating drug abuse as a health problem.