The news: The Obama administration has officially acknowledged that locking people up for doing controlled substances — a key cornerstone of the War on Drugs — is largely failing to curb drug use.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy's head Michael Botticelli said in a post on the Obama administration's website that the government's new strategy on drugs, "rejects the notion that we can arrest and incarcerate our way out of the nation's drug problem. Instead, it builds on decades of research demonstrating that while law enforcement should always remain a vital piece to protecting public safety, addiction is a brain disorder — one that can be prevented and treated, and from which people recover."
Botticelli argues that the best solution to America's drug problem is real treatment, not prison. "Only one-quarter or fewer of all arrestees had ever participated in any outpatient drug or alcohol treatment and less than 30% had ever participated in any inpatient drug or alcohol treatment," he added. "Many of these men will be caught in a painful cycle of arrest, incarceration, substance use disorders, and re-arrest. Our prisons and jails are already overcrowded with people who desperately need compassionate, evidence-based treatment for the disease of addiction -- not a jail cell."
Considering 82% of Americans think we're losing the battle with drugs and a growing majority of Americans supports marijuana legalization, maybe this statement is not particularly courageous. But it is a compelling and unprecedented acknowledgement from the White House that the current approach has failed and that the War on Drugs' days are numbered.
The background: The president's new plan, which rejects that incarceration alone will solve the drug epidemic, is a big step in the right direction. It will emphasize access to treatment, prevention, alternatives to incarceration and creating local solutions for regional challenges.
Some reformers, however, complain that the new approach isn't enough and Obama is largely pursuing enforcement as usual. Drug Policy Alliance director of national affairs Bill Piper told the Huffington Post that the administration is continuing strong-arm tactics, including cracking down on Carribbean drug smugglers, aggressively working with the Colombian government to eradicate coca crops there and raiding domestic meth labs.
Under Obama, 750,000 people were arrested for marijuana-related offenses in 2012. The White House budget for drug-control spending in 2014 spent 57% on interdiction and prevention and just 43% toward treatment and prevention. Those numbers are actually comparable to 2004 under George Bush.
"Until the drug czar says it is time to stop arresting people for drug use, he is not treating drug use as a health issue, no matter what he says," Piper told HuffPo. "I know of no other health issue in which people are thrown in jail if they don't get better."
Why you should care: The War on Drugs may be winding down, but it's far from over. But today's announcement is at least a big step forward.