Journalism in the Public Interest

Is Obama Delivering on His Promise of a “21st Century” Approach to Drugs?

As Obama and the US drug czar roll out their 2013 plan, here’s a look at what’s in it, and what they’ve done so far.

Barack Obama shakes hands with drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, as Attorney General Eric Holder looks on, after signing the Fair Sentencing Act. (Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

When the Obama administration released its 2013 Drug Control Strategy recently, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske called it a “21st century” approach to drug policy. “It should be a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue,” he said.

The latest plan builds on Obama’s initial strategy outlined in 2010. Obama said then the U.S. needed “a new direction in drug policy,” and that “a well-crafted strategy is only as successful as its implementation.” Many reform advocates were hopeful the appointment of former Seattle Police Chief Kerlikowske as head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy signaled a shift in the long-lasting “war on drugs.”

But a government report released a day after the latest proposal questioned the office’s impact so far.

“As of March 2013, GAO’s analysis showed that of the five goals for which primary data on results are available, one shows progress and four show no progress,” the report by the Government Accountability Office found. For instance, the GAO noted that there’s actually been an increase in HIV transmissions among drug users and drug-related deaths, as well as no difference in the prevalence of drug use among teens.

Many public health experts say the administration deserves credit for increasing access to drug treatment. But others say despite an increase in funding for rehab, the administration has continued to push programs and policies built to punish drug users.

As the administration lays out its latest plan on a new approach to drugs, here’s look at what’s in it, and what they’ve done so far.

“Break the cycle of drug use, crime, delinquency and incarceration”

“While smart law enforcement efforts will always play a vital role in protecting communities from drug-related crime and violence,” the latest strategy says, “we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem.”

FBI records indeed show a drop in drug arrests, from 1.8 million in 2007 to 1.5 million in 2011.

But overall, the government spends roughly the same proportion of the drug policy budget on law enforcement now as was spent during Bush’s final years in office. In Obama’s 2014 budget proposal, 38 percent is allocated for domestic drug law enforcement, while another 20 percent would be spent to crack down on drugs along U.S. borders and abroad.

The Obama administration has also renewed funding for controversial programs like the Justice Assistance Grant program, formerly known as Byrne Grants, which had been cut under President Bush. The funding created local drug task forces, which critics say were quota-driven and increased corruption and misconduct. Budget-minded conservatives like the Heritage Foundation also argued the grants hadn’t led to a decrease in crime. States like California and New York have used some funding from the program for treatment instead of enforcement.

The administration has made progress when it comes to overcrowding in prisons: One Department of Justice program gives states money to support research toward policymaking that reduces recidivism. Several state legislatures have independently lessened mandatory minimums, reformed parole policies, and passed other laws aimed at cutting the high cost of incarceration.

Obama also signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which ended a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for crack possession at the federal level, and lessened the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine.  

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of inmates in state prisons dropped roughly two percent from 2010 to 2011. Seventy percent of that is from a decrease in California’s prison population, after the Supreme Court upheld an order for the state to reduce overcrowding.

But as a recent Congressional Research report highlights, the number of inmates in federal prisons continues to rise, increasing over three percent from 2010 to 2011. Over half the current federal prison population is drug offenders.

“Support alternatives to incarceration”

In his latest budget, the president is requesting $85 million to go toward drug courts, which some have pushed as an alternative to criminal trials. Since 1999, the number of drug courts has grown from just under 500 to 2,734 today. Drug courts allow for non-violent offenders to avoid being charged, or to have their convictions expunged and sentences waived after completion of a rehab program and passing regular drug tests. Proponents of the system say it allows non-violent drug offenders to serve their time in treatment, instead of in prison.

A 2011 GAO report found statistics suggest drug courts reduce recidivism, but there’s not enough data to fully assess their effectiveness.

Some critics argue drug courts still fall short, by taking a criminal justice approach to a public health problem.

“Increase addiction treatment services”

Obama has indeed repeatedly increased funding for addiction treatment. He proposed $9 billion in his latest budget, up 18 percent from 2012.

Despite that, only 1 in 10 of the 21.6 million Americans in need of drug or alcohol addiction treatment received it in 2011. The number of people receiving treatment has stayed roughly the same since 2002.

The treatment gap should narrow as Obamacare goes into effect: Roughly five million more Americans currently facing drug addictions will soon have insurance coverage for treatment. “That’s the biggest expansion of treatment in 40 years, and maybe in the history of the U.S., ” said public health professor Keith Humphreys, who has served as a policy advisor to the ONDCP.

But a recent Associated Press analysis said current clinics will be overwhelmed by the new demand for treatment. State-level budget cuts have hit organizations hard, and treatment centers in over two-thirds of states are at or close to 100 percent capacity.

ONDCP spokesperson Rafael Lematire said the administration’s latest plan calls for an increase in the number of health care workers to treat newly insured patients.

“Review laws and regulations that impede recovery from addiction”

The latest drug strategy highlights the need to reduce “collateral consequences” (barriers to public benefits, employment and other opportunities) for those convicted of drug crimes. But Obama has little leverage on those issues, which are mostly decided on the state and local levels. For example, while HUD has encouraged public housing authorities to not disqualify former drug offenders from receiving public housing or Section 8 vouchers, it’s up to each city housing authority to determine their own rules.

“While we encourage housing authorities to give ex-offenders a second chance, the decision to admit or deny to public housing remains with the housing authorities,” said HUD spokeswoman Donna White.

Obama’s administration has not announced any plans to address the 1996 federal ban on food stamps or cash assistance for those convicted of drug felonies. Most states have opted out of or amended the law.

“Reduce drug-induced deaths”

The GAO noted that drug-induced deaths and emergency room visits increased from 2009 to 2010. Much of that is likely due to pharmaceutical abuse, which contributes to more accidental overdose deaths than illegal drugs or alcohol.

In 2011, the government released a plan to crack down on the abuse of prescription drugs. There’s little current data on overdose deaths, but recent studies have indeed noted a drop in prescription drug abuse.

Advocates have praised Obama's decision to endorse increasing access to emergency drug Naloxone, which can reverse opioid overdoses. Some lawmakers have criticized that position, saying it essentially encourages drug abuse.

In 2009, Obama also attempted to end the federal ban on funding for clean needle exchange programs, but Congress reversed the decision.

“Curtail illicit drug consumption in America”

The GAO report notes that the prevalence of drug use among teens and young adults has stayed the same since 2009. “With the exception of marijuana use, illicit drug use is trending down, specially prescription drug abuse and use of cocaine, hallucinogens, inhalants, and methamphetamine,” said ONDCP spokesperson Lemaitre. Research cited in the GAO report suggests the increase in marijuana use is tied to a decreased perception of risk.

Obama remains staunchly opposed to legalization, but it’s unclear how hard the administration plans to come down on states loosening marijuana laws. Obama has overseen far more medical marijuana raids than under the Bush administration. For states that have legalized pot, Attorney General Eric Holder said he intends to “enforce federal law”, though Obama said he had “bigger fish to fry.” The Department of Justice said it is still reviewing the latest laws. 

More Kabuki Theater please.

Drug czar - bullshit.  Nothing has happened and never will.  Why is 1 in 31 Americans in jail.  Overwhelmingly, minorities! With almost 80% on petty drug charges. Because we have a corporate prison enterprise that is on the stock exchange and need ‘patients.  Because we have corrupt judges, like in Pennsylvania, that send teens to prison and get a payoff from the corps. The border patrol/Homeland Sec. as we know here in Texas is paid off by the cartels. One has to be stupid not to see the semis running up and down from the border through San Antonio, Austin, Houston, Dallas with 40,000 lbs of drugs per semi.  The politicians get paid off. The answer is simple - legalize drugs.  The cost is estimated at 20x less than the shit drug czar and foolish Obamito. Stop putting citizens in jail for trivial personal possession use.  Just cut out all the political bullshit and payoffs.

I’m a member of one of those 12 steps groups, that as part of our traditions we stay detached and not involved in politics so I can in no way speak for the program, however it is becoming more and more apparent of the governments underhanded and manipulative overuse of the altruistic nature of our fellowship and commitment to not be controversial and exploit it terribly. Drug court people are “sentenced” to attending our fellowship, and that is considered “their treatment”, we have been overwhelmed by a flood of these poor people when we have a struggle helping those who come willingly (and they hardly ever put any money in the basket, just their court cards, they’re bitter, resentful, mentally ill, and horrible sick. Government has to stop using us as their solution for the drug problem. : (

melanie hoyt

May 8, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

I am impressed with the comments. The late Phil Walden (Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers Band—Capricorn Records) told me 2 things: (1) He has done drugs in the White House and in every state capitol; and (2)
the war on drugs is not being won because people are making too much money on it. Personally I would like to see our American people and their children be free of the urge to do anything that makes them high on a daily basis and that includes alcohol. We need to get back to our old
ways when life was much simpler for people. All I know is the drug cartels are way out of hand and the reason they are is because of all the money that American means to them. Maybe if we deported every person caught with drugs—a one-ticket forever that would stop all the graft and corruption as it would dry up the supply of people on drugs.
Remember everyone is not on drugs. If young people did not think it was cool and if they especially the Millennials were not so screwed up early on in their lives they might just want to have a normal regular childhood for the first 20 years of their lives. Plus they cannot see drugs in the home. Legalizing it? It will be as ubiquitous as bread and butter. You see the stats on marijuana. How responsible are people who drink alcohol and get high on weed that they do NOT get behind a wheel and drive? This happens all the time. Those stats should be included in this article. Also the poor people who resort to crime to fund their usage. This is a very difficult issue. I wish the writing on the wall were as simple as with sex predators as with them I would never allow them out of jail no matter what because they always come out and are repeat offenders and with someone like John Gardner who should never have left prison when he did he killed 2 young female teenagers. Maybe reorganize the prisons grouping them according to offense.

Interdiction and treatment are buzz words for “well-intentioned” people who have no understanding of addiction.  As a member of AA for over 25 years, I have seen people who willingly go to meetings fail even after several years of sobriety.  Sending people to mandatory treatment is a feel good solution with little if any success.  They should legalize all but the most dangerous drugs and treat those addicted as a medical condition.  Take all of the profit out and you may see a reduction of abuse.  However,  those profiting from the arresting, prosecuting and imprisonment of drug users would never allow it to happen.

The war on drugs has been an expensive failure for many years. Quit enforcing marijuana and legalize and tax it instead. Legalize most drugs or dispense them through legal outlets and take the money out of smuggling it into the US. It would cut the prison population for minor drug possession and minimize the war by drug cartels in Mexico.
Stopping drugs abuse with laws is just as useless as prohibition was. That only enriched the bootleggers and smugglers, and provided law enforcement jobs. When poor kids can make more money peddling drugs than working, if there are jobs, then the approach is all wrong.

Obama is so full of crap. He’s getting paired off just like the rest of these Corrupt Politicans in our Government. Money it’s always about the money. The privat Prison Industry paying off the State Politicians, the State paying off the Feds, and the joke of it all is that without the money from Legilizing Marajuana our States will never get out of thr red.
Taxing Marajuana will bring in more than enough funding to FIX most if not ALL of our state of Califorinas problems from School to Roads to Durg Programs to fixing the Delta and on and on and on.
It’s time for America to wake the F up to the reality of our 21st century.

In so many words, “No!”.

The Feds are just as determined to continue their drug war theatrics as ever.


May 10, 2013, 11:46 a.m.

Not mentioned here, but of great importance for some is the fact that this crackdown has made it very difficilt or impossable to get long term pain meds for legitamate needs. Especially in rural areas where the number of practioners willing to put in the extra work/time to be allowed to perscribe these meds to real pain suffers are few.

Now that my 57 year old wife has damaged her liver overuseing tylanol and alcohol to supplement her inadiquate perscription, she suffers regularly (to tears) and still cannot get perscribed enough drugs to bring relief.

If doctors test, and verify need, the government should not pressure them to restrict pain relief, it should be criminal to do so. This policy of restriction of supply would drive her to suicide, and maby me to homicide if these same drugs were not available on the streat.

This approach is sadistic and WRONG.

Laws by amendments need to be strict and simple.
Most of druggies are non-violent. Legalization & use will be proved good inside but any criminal of brutality -noble or crack head must receive suspended death penalty and be exported outside to brutal places such as Arabian, Taliban areas and subject to drone surveillance.

Is Obama Delivering on His Promise of ANYTHING?

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss… - The Who

Look, look…If we stop the War on Drugs, then what are we going to do with all that paramilitary equipment all the cops have?  I mean, an opportunity to play with toys like the Boston Marathon bombing comes along, what, once a decade?  Without drug dealers needing to arm themselves to the teeth, it’s not even worth having a bulletproof vest, for the most part, and that just sucks all the fun out of law enforcement.

Plus, what would the alcohol, tobacco, and (legal) pharmaceutical companies do if the alternatives to their products weren’t punishable with mandatory jail time?  I mean, think of the jobs lost if a kid could just as easily get pot as a forty!  Just think of the children.  If you want to forget your troubles, you pay an enormous corporation to get you addicted!

I’m not pro-drug, by any means, but it’s clear the War on Drugs isn’t hurting the drugs, while it is hurting Americans as collateral damage.  That Obama just pays lip service to the fact without actually changing the policy speaks volumes.

...As does his continued use of the word “czar” while wondering why people think he’s a Socialist.  I mean, he’s obviously not, since his economic policies overwhelmingly favor the rich and powerful, but consistent use of Russian vocabulary, to a certain age group, shouldn’t be mystifying when one makes certain connections…

He is delivering all right:

I wish better luck to the “Dreamers” than his broken promises to medical marijuana users.

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