A new day for the ‘war on drugs’

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It didn’t get much attention, but the Obama administration did something interesting yesterday: it unveiled a new approach on U.S. drug policy. As Keli Goff reported, “It appears that the administration may finally be ready to put the so-called drug war to bed and replace it with a much more commonsense drug policy focused on rehabilitation, not incarceration.”

[D]uring a call with reporters, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, signaled that the administration’s approach to marijuana going forward would deprioritize criminalization…. This acknowledgment – that marijuana can, in fact, uproot lives and land individuals in the criminal-justice system – is an important one, which up until now the White House has downplayed. […]

But perhaps the most significant component of the new strategy is that the White House is making a commitment to work to reform laws and restrictions that penalize drug offenders by limiting their employment, housing and educational prospects.

This issue has been lurking, just below the surface for quite a while, and last summer, Obama aides signaled that reforming drug policies would be a priority in a second term. The promises were part of a long-term strategy that began in 2009, with President Obama putting the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the hands of Gil Kerlikowske, who said the whole concept of a “war on drugs” is misguided, and called for a massive shift in emphasis away from incarceration and towards treatment.

With yesterday’s announcement on a new, “smart on crime” approach, the Obama administration is taking the next step in this larger evolution.

The White House published a relatively detailed report yesterday, along with the above video of President Obama addressing the drug issue in an interview, and it’s worth checking out (thanks to my colleague Anthony Terrell for the tip).

From Kerlikowske’s report:

The programs and policy reforms set forth in the 2013 Strategy are built upon decades of scientific research demonstrating that addiction is a chronic disease of the brain that can be successfully prevented and treated, not a moral failure on the part of the individual. The Strategy directs Federal agencies to expand community-based efforts to prevent drug use before it begins, empower healthcare workers to intervene early at the first signs of a substance use disorder, expand access to treatment for those who need it, and support the millions of Americans in recovery.

The Strategy details actions to implement the most significant expansion of access to substance use treatment in generations. Through a new rule made possible by the Affordable Care Act, insurers will now be required to cover treatment for substance use disorders just as they would for any other chronic disease. Specifically, this new rule expands mental health and substance use disorder benefits and Federal parity protections for 62 million Americans, making it a key element in the Administration’s public health approach to drug policy in the United States.

The Strategy also contains action items in support of a “smart on crime” approach to drug enforcement, protecting communities from domestic and international drug-related crime while diverting non-violent drug offenders into treatment instead of prison. As part of this approach, the Strategy highlights promising criminal justice reforms, including drug courts and smart probation programs that reduce incarceration rates, along with community-based policing programs that break the cycle of drug use, crime, and incarceration while focusing limited enforcement resources on more serious offenses.

NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement, “This strategy demonstrates that the Obama Administration is serious about criminal justice reform. The president’s strategy puts in place an approach which acknowledges that we cannot incarcerate our way out of the drug problem and that we have an obligation to expand ‘smart on crime’ approaches that place individuals, their welfare and dignity, at the center of drug policy in America.”

In the recent past, all of this would draw quick condemnations from the right, with accusations about being “soft on crime.” But my suspicion is the political winds have turned a bit, and the electoral risks associated drug reforms have faded – there’s just no reason for even the most conservative Republican to support a failing policy that costs too much and does too much damage.

The debate is overdue; Kerlikowske’s new strategy is a healthy way to get the conversation started.

Drugs, Drug Policy and Gil Kerlikowske

A new day for the 'war on drugs'

Updated