How Obama Wages the War on Drugs

Why did his drug czar call the war so far a failure?

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Almost exactly one year after President Obama's new drug czar Gil Kerlikowske assumed office, the White House released its National Drug Control Strategy on Tuesday, formally beginning the Obama chapter in America's war on drugs. Many on the left, as well as libertarians, have long criticized drug-war policies as overly harsh and counterproductive.

The Associated Press reports that the war has "cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives" in the 40 years since President Nixon began it. But those policies have continued apace, especially since the drug czar office was first opened in 1989. So it's surprised many observers to see that Kerlikowske, less than a week into office, has deemed the war on drugs a failure. If past policies have failed, what are Obama's new policies going to be?

  • Kerlikowske: Not Successful  Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske tells the A.P., "In the grand scheme, it has not been successful. ... Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified." When asked how the policy would change, he responded, "Nothing happens overnight. ... We've never worked the drug problem holistically. We'll arrest the drug dealer, but we leave the addiction."
  • Obama's Bold New Drugs Policy  The A.P.'s Sam Hananel reports, "The White House is putting more resources into drug prevention and treatment, part of President Barack Obama's pledge to treat illegal drug use more as a public health issue than a criminal justice problem. The new drug control strategy to be released Tuesday boosts community-based anti-drug programs, encourages health care providers to screen for drug problems before addiction sets in and expands treatment beyond specialty centers to mainstream health care facilities."
  • Treatment Instead of Incarceration  The Washington Independent's Mike Lillis affirms Kerlikowske's views on "the economic advantages of treating addiction like an illness instead of a crime." Kerlikowske says that "treatment programs are about one-half the cost of incarceration," implying that he would rather treat some drug users than imprison them. Lillis writes, "that’s music to the ears of states facing the toughest budget problems in a generation."
  • Promises Versus Past Practices  In a detailed investigation, the Associated Press' Martha Mendoza writes, "This week President Obama promised to 'reduce drug use and the great damage it causes' with a new national policy that he said treats drug use more as a public health issue and focuses on prevention and treatment. ... Nevertheless, his administration has increased spending on interdiction and law enforcement to record levels both in dollars and in percentage terms; this year, they account for $10 billion of his $15.5 billion drug-control budget."
  • Obama Should Focus on Demand  National Journal's Tom Risen reports, "groups such as the Marijuana Policy Project and the Drug Policy Alliance say Kerlikowske is continuing an ineffective strategy and argue that targeting shipments of drugs will not stop production so long as high demand encourages cartels. Policies that focus on the demand side include rehabilitation and education programs as well as funds for community building such as social worker assistance to encourage job hunting."
  • Maintains Big Funding for Enforcement  Head of Law Enforce Against Prohibition, and pro-marijuana-legalization group, Neill Franklin writes, "The drug czar is saying all the right things about ending the 'war on drugs' and enacting a long-overdue balanced strategy focused on a public health approach. ... Unfortunately the reality of the budget numbers doesn't match up to the rhetoric. Two-thirds of the budget is dedicated to the same old 'war on drugs' approach and only a third goes to public health strategies. My experience policing the beat tells me that it's certainly time for a new approach, but unfortunately this administration is failing to provide the necessary leadership to actually make it happen instead of just talking about it."
  • No Legalization  The Huffington Post's Michael Whitney pulls out the new strategy's language on legalization. "Keeping drugs illegal reduces their availability and lessens willingness to use them. That is why this Administration firmly opposes the legalization of marijuana or any other illicit drug. Legalizing drugs would increase accessibility and encourage promotion and acceptance of use."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.