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The Drug Czar's Only Job is to Oppose Legalization (And He Sucks at It)

Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske is back in damage control mode again following Mexican President Felipe Calderon's call for a debate on legalizing drugs.

Kerlikowske, known officially as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, spoke this morning at a border security conference in El Paso, where he tried to debunk the belief that taxing and regulating currently illegal narcotics would somehow put narco-traffickers out of business.

“[Traffickers] would not change their ways and turn to legal pursuits if drugs were legal,” he said. “Legalizing drugs makes them cheaper, makes them more accessible and therefore makes them more widely abused.” [Texas Tribune]

I would love for Kerlikowske to explain to me how legalization is going to completely change everything, yet somehow fail to affect the illicit market. Rather obviously, if drugs become much cheaper, the cartels get screwed. That is so painfully simple, I'm running out of ways to explain it.

As usual, the argument once again comes down to this ridiculous division over whether or not legalization hurts drug kingpins. It shouldn't take more than a kernel of common sense to solve this riddle, and if that's too much to ask, history has also settled this debate rather decisively for us. We did once ban the most popular drug in the country, and then legalized it again, so there's plenty to be learned from that experience if one is so inclined. Alcohol prohibition was the only period in American history during which the alcohol industry was controlled by murderous gangsters. Everyone knows that.

Of course, the only reason we even have a drug czar is to confuse people about how drug policy actually works. We've spent enormous sums over the years empowering government propagandists to distort the debate, and if there's anything remarkable about Kerlikowske's various comments on legalization, it's how bland, brief and boring they've been. His job is literally to clarify the Obama administration's opposition to legalization in as few words as humanly possible, so as to avoid getting anyone excited. His goal is to make the conversation less interesting, and he does a pretty good job.

Unfortunately for the drug czar, it really doesn't matter very much how he expresses his opposition to legalizing drugs. He's just the latest stooge to be tasked with the miserable duty of dealing with us, and as long as we keep forcing the subject, we're scoring points.

Feature: Medical Marijuana Advocates Smell Victory in South Dakota

With Election Day still more than four months off, the South Dakota Coalition for Compassion is laying the groundwork for South Dakota to become the country's next medical marijuana state. The campaign is confident of victory in November, and low-key for now with no organized opposition in sight, but promises to progressively ramp-up its efforts through the summer and fall.

coalition banner
Bucking a recent trend in state medical marijuana laws, the South Dakota Safe Access Act (known as Measure 13 on the ballot) does not provide for state-operated or -regulated dispensaries. Instead, it allows patients or designated caregivers to possess up to one ounce of usable marijuana and six plants. A single caregiver can grow for no more than five patients.

The measure cites the usual list of diseases (cancer, glaucoma, HIV, MS, Alzheimer's) and conditions (wasting syndrome, intractable pain, severe nausea, seizures, spasms) for which marijuana could be used medicinally, and includes a provision allowing the state Department of Health to add other diseases or conditions. Upon getting a physician's recommendation, the patient and his caregiver (if any) would register with the department and receive registration ID cards.

South Dakota gained notoriety in 2006 when it became the only state to see voters reject a medical marijuana legalization initiative, defeating it by a margin of 52% to 48%. This year, the outcome will be different, the coalition said. "I am very confident we're going to get it this time around," predicted coalition spokesman Emmett Reistroffer.

The political atmosphere, both locally and nationally, is certainly better this time around. In 2006, the medical marijuana initiative faced in Republican Larry Long a South Dakota attorney general strongly opposed to it and a Bush administration concerned enough to send officials from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) to the state to campaign against it. Now, recently-appointed Attorney General Marty Jackley, while, like Long, a Republican, is on the fence on the issue, and the Obama administration seems much less inclined to interfere in a state initiative vote.

"I talked to Marty Jackley, and he is nowhere near as opposed to medical marijuana as Larry Long was," said Reistroffer. "His ballot explanation was very fair, unlike 2006, when MPP had to sue then Attorney General Larry Long to make him write a fair explanation," he said.

"Jackley told me he was open to a carefully managed program, but wasn't prepared to specifically support our proposal. What he's afraid of is what could be hidden in the details," Reistroffer related. "Jackley was appointed to office and is running for election the same day as our ballot measure. I don't expect him to support us, but I do expect that he will remain neutral."

Jackley's office did not return Chronicle calls asking his position on the initiative.

The coalition has enlisted some potent advocates with credentials that could help push the effort over the top. One is Tony Ryan, a retired police officer and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "We are doing well, we seem to be well-received, we've been speaking to groups and have more invitations coming up," he said. "There seems to be a trend toward people being more accepting of the idea that we need to change our approach to drugs, and when you're talking specifically about medical marijuana and you can point to the ample evidence it is beneficial, people seem to be a lot more accepting than they were even four years ago."

Ryan was optimistic at the measure's prospects for passage this year. "Now that the American Medical Association has come out and said we need to think about getting it off Schedule I, things are really falling into place. This isn't about marijuana, this is about helping sick people -- that's the message we have to hammer home."

Another well-placed advocate is state Rep. Martha Vanderlinde (D-Sioux Falls), a practicing nurse who introduced a medical marijuana bill in the legislature, where it promptly went nowhere. "The South Dakota legislature is very conservative," she said. "They told me it was political suicide to sponsor that bill, but I felt it was necessary. There are people I talk to who say they want it, but they don't want to say so out loud," Vanderlinde explained.

"Medical marijuana is just one more tool in the kit for people with severe, debilitating medical conditions to use for relief," said Vanderlinde. "Working with cancer patients, MS patients, and others, I've seen it help so many people relieve their pain, their anxiety, their spasms. As a nurse working in the field, I see this as a simple herb that could help people, and that means a lot. Legalization for medical use is the only way to go."

This will be the year, she said. "With the AMA supporting medical marijuana, with the past president of the local MS Society on board, with Emmett and Tony crisscrossing the state to get the knowledge out there, the word is getting out. We want South Dakota to be the 15th state to legalize medical marijuana."

While the coalition is pleased with the AMA's acknowledgement of marijuana's medical benefits and call for a review of its scheduling, it's not so impressed with the local affiliate. The South Dakota Medical Association has been a disappointment, said Reistroffer. "We've received no support from them. They haven't even returned phone calls or emails. I'm hoping we can get them to remain neutral."

Things are about to start heating up, the coalition said. "We've got a little money set aside for some ads and we're ready to make a TV commercial featuring the former head of the state MS Society if the funding comes through," said Reistroffer. "Tony Ryan is in the middle of a long list of speaking engagements. Things are starting to pick up for us now, and July will be a big month, and the closer to the election we get, the more intense the campaign will get. I'm meeting with the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) this week to probably set up our first polling."

"We helped draft the initiative and provided some strategic advice," said MPP spokesman Mike Meno. "The local campaign will be taking off soon. This almost passed in 2006; now, it's just a matter of getting people out to the polls."

"We will be reaching out to whoever we can," said Ryan. "We will be targeting college campuses," he said, noting the formation of a Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) chapter at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. "And we'll be using word of mouth. We'll be going places we didn't go in 2006, like some of those rural counties in the center of the state that voted strongly against it."

So far, so good in South Dakota. But let's see what the next four months bring.

Marijuana: Study Finds Minimal Changes in Driving Performance After Smoking

The head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, is pushing a campaign targeting drugged driving and has singled out marijuana as a main problem. But if the latest research findings on stoned driving are any indication, the drug czar may want to shift his emphasis if he wants to (as he claims) let policy be driven by evidence.

According to clinical trial data published in the March issue of the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, subjects tested both before and after smoking marijuana exhibited virtually identical driving skills in a battery of driving simulator tests. Researchers in the double-blind, placebo-controlled trial tested 85 subjects -- 50 men and 35 women -- on simulated driving performance. The subjects had to respond to simulations of various events associated with vehicle crash risk, such as deciding whether to stop or go through a changing traffic light, avoiding a driver entering an intersection illegally, and responding to the presence of emergency vehicles. Subjects were tested sober and again a half hour after having smoked a single medium-potency (2.9% THC) joint or a placebo.

The investigators found that the subjects' performance before and after getting stoned was virtually identical. "No differences were found during the baseline driving segment (and the) collision avoidance scenarios," the authors reported. Nor were there any differences between the way men and women responded.

Researchers did note one difference. "Participants receiving active marijuana decreased their speed more so than those receiving placebo cigarettes during (the) distracted section of the drive," they wrote. The authors speculated that the subjects may have slowed down to compensate for perceived impairment. "[N]o other changes in driving performance were found," researchers concluded.

Past research on marijuana use and driving has yielded similar results as well, including a 2008 driving simulator clinical trial conducted in Israel and published in Accident, Analysis, and Prevention. That trial compared the performance of drivers after they had ingested either alcohol or marijuana. "Average speed was the most sensitive driving performance variable affected by both THC and alcohol but with an opposite effect," the investigators reported. "Smoking THC cigarettes caused drivers to drive slower in a dose-dependent manner, while alcohol caused drivers to drive significantly faster than in 'control' conditions."

Something to keep in mind when lawmakers in your state start pushing for zero-tolerance "per se" Driving Under the Influence of Drugs laws that want to label people impaired drivers because of the presence of a few metabolites left over from last week.

WARNING: Recent Claims That the Drug War is Over Are False

Our new drug czar really has a way with words. He says things you never thought you'd hear from a drug czar. Unfortunately, like his predecessors, he's completely full of BS:

THE United States has "ended its war on drugs" and is now moving its focus to prevention and treatment, the US drugs chief has told top Irish drug officials.

"We’ve talked about a ‘war on drugs’ for 40 years, since President Nixon. I ended the war," said Mr Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). [Irish Examiner]

Except, he absolutely did no such thing. Their guns are still loaded. Their rubber stamps are all inked up and ready to authorize aggressive raids on non-violent suspects. They'll put several hundred thousand people in handcuffs this year just for smoking marijuana. Just watch this and tell me what the guys in the battle suits are doing if not waging war on people.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love it when the drug czar talks about moving beyond the "war" metaphor and approaching drug policy from a public health perspective. It's a step in the right direction, even if it's shockingly disingenuous under the current terms of engagement. I just wonder if they actually think anyone's buying any of this.

It's a war, you numbskull. You can't fight a bloody war against millions of people on your own soil and just pretend it's not happening. If you really believe we don't need this war, then stop trying to sugarcoat it and end this dreadful escapade once and for all.

Accurate Media Coverage Upsets Drug Czar

Last week, the Associate Press ran one of the best pieces on U.S. drug policy I've ever seen, and it began like this:

MEXICO CITY (AP) — After 40 years, the United States' war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.
Even U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske concedes the strategy hasn't worked.

"In the grand scheme, it has not been successful," Kerlikowske told The Associated Press. "Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified."

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.

So now the drug czar is annoyed at AP for, I guess, quoting him and accurately reporting on his anti-drug budget:

The budget piece is fair to focus on, but we told AP that we objected to the article's mischaracterization of current policy.  A fairer and more nuanced observation would have been: This does look/sound a lot different, but the budget scenario hasn't changed overnight (it never does, in any realm of government) and it will take some time to test the Administration's commitment to the new approach. [ofsubstance.gov]

Really? Because the drug czar did kinda admit that the strategy sucks. It's not a "mischaracterization" when someone prints the words coming out of your mouth. It's not like Ethan Nadelmann said that and they falsely attributed it to you. Guess what guys: until you stop spending more than half your budget on the exact activities that even you agree have failed, you're going to get called out early and often.

If the drug czar wants us to understand why his budget can't change overnight, then he'll need to explain what the hell that means. Is he talking about the massive drug war industry that depends on our tax dollars to buy fancy technology that's useless without prohibition? Is he wondering what the dog-slaughtering SWAT soldiers in Missouri are supposed to wear without federal subsidies for their bullet-proof bodysuits? If that's the problem, then let's talk about it.

In the meantime, Kerlikowske shouldn't be complaining that AP's coverage isn't "nuanced" enough for him. He's the one who talked to them and said things that didn’t make sense.

Prohibition: Drug War is a Failure, Associated Press Reports

In a major, broad-ranging report released Thursday, the Associated Press declared that "After 40 Years, $1 Trillion, US War on Drugs Has Failed to Meet Any of Its Goals." The report notes that after four decades of prohibitionist drug enforcement, "Drug use is rampant and violence is even more brutal and widespread."

The AP even got drug czar Gil Kerlikowske to agree. "In the grand scheme, it has not been successful," Kerlikowske said. "Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified."

The AP pointedly notes that despite official acknowledgments that the policy has been a flop, the Obama administration's federal drug budget continues to increase spending on law enforcement and interdiction and that the budget's broad contours are essentially identical to those of the Bush administration.

Here, according to the AP, is where some of that trillion dollars worth of policy disaster went:

  • $20 billion to fight the drug gangs in their home countries. In Colombia, for example, the United States spent more than $6 billion, while coca cultivation increased and trafficking moved to Mexico -- and the violence along with it.
  • $33 billion in marketing "Just Say No"-style messages to America's youth and other prevention programs. High school students report the same rates of illegal drug use as they did in 1970, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug overdoses have "risen steadily" since the early 1970s to more than 20,000 last year.
  • $49 billion for law enforcement along America's borders to cut off the flow of illegal drugs. This year, 25 million Americans will snort, swallow, inject and smoke illicit drugs, about 10 million more than in 1970, with the bulk of those drugs imported from Mexico.
  • $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, about 10 million of them for possession of marijuana. Studies show that jail time tends to increase drug abuse.
  • $450 billion to lock those people up in federal prisons alone. Last year, half of all federal prisoners in the US were serving sentences for drug offenses. [Editor's Note: This $450 billion dollar figure for federal drug war prisoners appears erroneous on the high side. According to Department of Justice budget figures, funding for the Bureau of Prisons, as well as courthouse security programs, was set at $9 billion for the coming fiscal year.]

The AP notes that, even adjusted for inflation, the federal drug war budget is 31 times what Richard Nixon asked for in his first federal drug budget.

Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron told the AP that spending money for more police and soldiers only leads to more homicides. "Current policy is not having an effect of reducing drug use," Miron said, "but it's costing the public a fortune."

"President Obama's newly released drug war budget is essentially the same as Bush's, with roughly twice as much money going to the criminal justice system as to treatment and prevention," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance. "This despite Obama's statements on the campaign trail that drug use should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue."

"For the first time ever, the nation has before it an administration that views the drug issue first and foremost through the lens of the public health mandate," said economist and drug policy expert John Carnevale, who served three administrations and four drug czars. "Yet... it appears that this historic policy stride has some problems with its supporting budget."

Of the record $15.5 billion Obama is requesting for the drug war for 2011, about two thirds of it is destined for law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction. About one-third will go for prevention and treatment.

The AP did manage to find one person to stick up for the drug war: former Bush administration drug czar John Walters, who insisted society would be worse if today if not for the drug war. "To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven't made any difference is ridiculous," Walters said. "It destroys everything we've done. It's saying all the people involved in law enforcement, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It's saying all these people's work is misguided."

Uh, yeah, John, that's what it's saying.

Drug Czar Admits Failure, Pledges to Continue It

Tell me something I don't know:

MEXICO CITY (AP) — After 40 years, the United States' war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.

Even U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske concedes the strategy hasn't worked.

"In the grand scheme, it has not been successful," Kerlikowske told The Associated Press. "Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified."

Yes. Yes! Did I just hear a drug czar basically admit that the drug war completely sucks? Well then, what are you going to do about it?

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.

Kerlikowske, who coordinates all federal anti-drug policies, says it will take time for the spending to match the rhetoric.

Really? Why? This isn't hard, dude. You just stop paying everybody to f@#king destroy everything. I mean, it's interesting that he admits their rhetoric is nonsense, but that was already super obvious. We're in the middle of an economic crisis, and here's the drug czar telling us we can't stop funding programs that even he himself admits are a complete waste. What the hell is going on here?

It's easy to call the Obama Administration out on their hypocrisy, and we should. But it's also worth contemplating why they're doing such a miserable job of defending their own drug strategy. I think the difference between Kerlikowske and his predecessor is that John Walters actually bought into his own hype. His ego won't let him understand the destruction he oversaw. I don't believe Kerlikowske is even loyal to the war in the first place. I think he's just trying to do his job while pissing off as few people as possible. He aims to placate the public by acknowledging the obvious, while simultaneously ensuring that the drug war industrial complex is still able to pay its bills.

So which is worse, a drug czar who won't learn from his mistakes, or one who continues to support policies he knows are wrong?

John Walters Still Thinks the Drug War is Awesome

This comment from the former drug czar perfectly explains why drug warriors are so incapable of ever admitting failure:

"To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven't made any difference is ridiculous," Walters said. "It destroys everything we've done. It's saying all the people involved in law enforcment, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It's saying all these people's work is misguided." [AP]

Well, yeah. If your idea of law enforcement is shoving guns in the faces of misdemeanor drug suspects, if your idea of treatment is forcing casual marijuana users into drug therapy, and if your idea of prevention is spending countless millions on anti-drug ads that are proven to increase drug use, then I would call you "misguided," to say the least.

This is what you've accomplished, sir, and instead of demanding gratitude, you should consider yourself lucky you haven't yet been paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in tar and feathers.

Feature: Obama's First National Drug Strategy -- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A leaked draft of the overdue 2010 National Drug Strategy was published by Newsweek over the weekend, and it reveals some positive shifts away from Bush-era drug policy paradigms and toward more progressive and pragmatic approaches. But there is a lot of continuity as well, and despite the Obama administration's rhetorical shift away from the "war on drugs," the drug war juggernaut is still rolling along.

sign of the leaker?
That doesn't quite jibe with Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) director Gil Kerlikowske's words when he announced in April 2009 that the phrase "war on drugs" was no longer in favor. "Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs' or a 'war on a product,' people see a war as a war on them. We're not at war with people in this country."

The leak was reported by long-time Washington insider and Newsweek columnist Michael Isikoff, who mentioned it almost off-handedly in a piece asserting "The White House Drug Czar's Diminished Status." Isikoff asserted in the piece that the unveiling of the strategy had been delayed because Kerlikowske didn't have the clout to get President Obama to schedule a joint appearance to release it. His office had been downgraded from cabinet level, Isikoff noted.

That sparked an angry retort from UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, a burr under the saddle to prohibitionists and anti-prohibitionists alike for his heterodox views on drug policy. In a blog post, Kleiman seemed personally offended at the leak, twice referring to the leaker as "a jerk," defending the new drug strategy as innovative if bound by interagency politics, and deriding Isikoff's article as "gossipy."

Kleiman also suggested strongly that the leaker was none other than former John Walters on the basis of an editing mark on the document that had his name on it. But Walters has not confirmed that, and others have point out it could have been a current staffer who is using the same computer Walters used while in office.

On the plus side, the draft strategy embraces some harm reduction programs, such as needle exchanges and the use of naloxone to prevent overdoses, although without ever uttering the words "harm reduction." There is also a renewed emphasis on prevention and treatment, with slight spending increases. But again reality fails to live up to rhetoric, with overall federal drug control spending maintaining the long-lived 2:1 ration in spending for law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction versus that for treatment and prevention.

The strategy also promotes alternatives to incarceration, such drug courts, community courts and the like and for the first time hints that it recognizes the harms that can be caused by the punitive approach to drug policy. And it explicitly calls for reform of the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses.

It sets a number of measurable goals related to reducing drug use. By 2015, ONDCP vows to cut last month drug use by young adults by 10% and cut last month use by teens, lifetime use by 8th graders, and the number of chronic drug users by 15%.

The 2010 goals of a 15% reduction reflect diminishing expectations after years of more ambitious drug use reduction goals followed by the drug policy establishment's inability to achieve them. That could inoculate the Obama administration from the kind of criticism faced by the Clinton administration back in the 1990s when it did set much more ambitious goals.

The Clinton administration's 1998 National Drug Control Strategy called for a "ten-year conceptual framework to reduce drug use and drug availability by 50%." That didn't happen. That strategy put the number of drug users at 13.5 million, but instead of decreasing, according to the 2008 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse and Health, by 2007 the number of drug users was at 20.1 million.

While Clinton took criticism from Republicans that his goals were not ambitious enough -- Newt Gingrich said we should just wipe out drugs -- the Bush administration set similar goals, and achieved similarly modest results. The Bush administration's 2002 National Drug Control Strategy sought a 25% reduction in drug use by both teenagers and adults within five years. While teen drug use declined from 11.6% in 2002 to 9.3% in 2007, then drug czar Walters missed his goal. He did less well with adult use almost unchanged, at 6.3% in 2000 and 5.9% in 2007.

The draft strategy, however, remains wedded to law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction, calls for strong federal support for local drug task forces, and explicitly rejects marijuana legalization. It also seeks to make drugged driving a top priority, which would be especially problematic if the administration adopts per se zero tolerance measures (meaning the presence of any metabolites of a controlled substance could result in a driver's arrest whether he was actually impaired or not).

Still, while the draft strategy is definitely a mixed bag, a pair of keen observers of ONDCP and federal drug policy pronounced themselves fairly pleased overall. While still heavy on the law enforcement side, the first Obama national drug strategy is a far cry from the propaganda-driven documents of Bush era drug czar John Walters.

The Good

"This is somewhat of a surprise, because for the first time they have included reducing the funds associated with the drug war in their strategy, although not in a big way, they're calling for reform of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, and they are calling for the reform of laws that penalize people," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is the first time they've included anything recognizing that some of our policies are creating harm," he added.

"The stuff about syringe exchange and naloxone for overdose prevention is pretty good. It's the first time they've embraced any part of harm reduction, even though they don't use that name," Piper noted.

"I'm also impressed with the section on alternatives to incarceration," said Piper. "They basically said most drug users don't belong in jail, and a lot of dealers don't, either. It's still wedded to the criminal justice system, but it's good that they looked at so many different things -- drug courts, community courts, Operation Highpoint (warning dealers to desist instead of just arresting them as a means of breaking up open-air drug markets), programs for veterans. They seem interested in finding out what works, which is an evidence-based approach that had been lacking in previous strategies."

The Status Quo

"Drug war reformers have eagerly been waiting the release of President Obama's first National Drug Control Strategy," noted Matthew Robinson, professor of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University and coauthor (with Renee Scherlen) of "Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the ONDCP." "Would it put Obama's and Kerlikowske's words into action, or would it be more of the same in terms of federal drug control policy? The answer is yes. And no. There is real, meaningful, exciting change proposed in the 2010 Strategy. But there's a lot of the status quo, too," he said.

"The first sentence of the Strategy hints at status quo approaches to federal drug control policy; it announces 'a blueprint for reducing illicit drug use and its harmful consequences in America,'" Robinson said. "That ONDCP will still focus on drug use (as opposed to abuse) is unfortunate, for the fact remains that most drug use is normal, recreational, pro-social, and even beneficial to users; it does not usually lead to bad outcomes for users, including abuse or addiction," he said.

"Just like under the leadership of Director John Walters, Kerlikowske's ONDCP characterizes its drug control approaches as 'balanced,' yet FY 2011 federal drug control spending is still imbalanced in favor of supply side measures (64%), while the demand side measures of treatment and prevention will only receive 36% of the budget," Robinson pointed out. "In FY 2010, the percentages were 65% and 35%, respectively. Perhaps when Barack Obama said 'Change we can believe in,' what he really meant was 'Change you can believe in, one percentage point at a time.'"

There is also much of the status quo in funding levels, Robinson said. "There will also be plenty of drug war funding left in this 'non-war on drugs.' For example, FY 2011 federal drug control spending includes $3.8 billion for the Department of Homeland Security (which includes Customs and Border Protection spending), more than $3.4 billion for the Department of Justice (which includes Drug Enforcement Agency spending), and nearly $1.6 billion for the Department of Defense (which includes military spending). Thus, the drug war will continue on under President Obama even if White House officials do not refer to federal drug control policy as a 'war on drugs,'" he noted.

The Bad

"ONDCP repeatedly stresses the importance of reducing supply of drugs into the United States through crop eradication and interdiction efforts, international collaboration, disruption of drug smuggling organizations, and so forth," Robinson noted. "It still promotes efforts like Plan Colombia, the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, and many other similar programs aimed at eradicating drugs in foreign countries and preventing them from entering the United States. The bottom line here is that the 'non war on drugs' will still look and feel like a war on drugs under President Obama, especially to citizens of the foreign nations where the United States does the bulk of its drug war fighting."

"They are still wedded to interdiction and eradication," said Piper. "There is no recognition that they aren't very effective and do more harm than good. Coming only a couple of weeks after the drug czar testified under oath that eradication in Colombia and Afghanistan and elsewhere had no impact on the availability of drugs in the US, to then put out a strategy embracing what he said was least effective is quite disturbing."

"The ringing endorsement of per se standards for drugged driving is potentially troubling," said Piper. "It looks a lot like zero tolerance. We have to look at this also in the context of new performance measures, which are missing from the draft. In the introduction, they talk about setting goals for reducing drug use and that they went to set other performance measures, such as for reducing drug overdoses and drugged driving. If they actually say they're going to reduce drugged driving by such and such an amount with a certain number of years, that will be more important. We'll have to see what makes it into the final draft."

"They took a gratuitous shot at marijuana reform," Piper noted. "It was unfortunate they felt the need to bash something that half of Americans support and to do it in the way they did, listing a litany of Reefer Madness allegations and connecting marijuana to virtually every problem in America. That was really unfortunate."

More Good

There are some changes in spending priorities. "Spending on prevention will grow 13.4% from FY 2010 to FY 2011, while spending on treatment will grow 3.7%," Robinson noted. "The growth in treatment is surprisingly small given that ONDCP notes that 90% of people who need treatment do not receive it. Increases are much smaller for spending on interdiction (an increase of 2.4%), domestic law enforcement (an increase of 1.9%), and international spending (an increase of 0.9%). This is evidence of a shift in federal drug control strategy under President Obama; there will be a greater effort to prevent drug use in the first place as well as treat those that become addicted to drugs than there ever was under President Bush."

Robinson also lauded the Obama administration for more clarity in the strategy than was evident under either Clinton or Bush. "Obama's first Strategy clearly states its guiding principles, each of which is followed by a specific set of actions to be initiated and implemented over time to achieve goals and objectives related to its principles. Of course, this is Obama's first Strategy, so in subsequent years, there will be more data presented for evaluation purposes, and it should become easier to decipher the ideology that will drive the 'non war on drugs' under President Obama," he said.

But he suggested that ideology still plays too big a role. "ONDCP hints at its ideology when it claims that programs such as 'interdiction, anti-trafficking initiatives, drug crop reduction, intelligence sharing and partner nation capacity building... have proven effective in the past.' It offers almost no evidence that this is the case other than some very limited, short-term data on potential cocaine production in Colombia. ONDCP claims it is declining, yet only offers data from 2007 to 2008. Kerlikowske's ONDCP seems ready to accept the dominant drug war ideology of Walters that supply side measures work -- even when long-term data show they do not."

Robinson also lauded ONDCP's apparent revelation that drug addiction is a disease. "Obama's first strategy embraces a new approach to achieving federal drug control goals of 'reducing illicit drug consumption' and 'reducing the consequences of illicit drug use in the United States,' one that is evidence-based and public health oriented," Robinson said. "ONDCP recognizes that drug addiction is a disease and it specifies that federal drug control policy should be assisted by parties in all of the systems that relate to drug use and abuse, including families, schools, communities, faith-based organizations, the medical profession, and so forth. This is certainly a change from the Bush Administration, which repeatedly characterized drug use as a moral or personal failing."

While the Obama drug strategy may have its faults, said Robinson, it is a qualitative improvement over Bush era drug strategies. "Under the Bush Administration, ONDCP came across as downright dismissive of data, evidence, and science, unless it was used to generate fear and increased punitive responses to drug-related behaviors. Honestly, there is very little of this in Obama's first strategy, aside from the usual drugs produce crime, disorder, family disruption, illness, addiction, death, and terrorism argument that has for so long been employed by ONDCP," he said. "Instead, the Strategy is hopeful in tone and lays out dozens of concrete programs and policies that aim to prevent drug use among young people (through public education programs, mentoring initiatives, increasing collaboration between public health and safety organizations); treat adults who have developed drug abuse and addiction problems (though screening and intervention by medical personnel, increased investments in addiction treatment, new treatment medications); and, for the first time, invest heavily in recovery efforts that are restorative in nature and aimed at giving addicts a new lease on life," he noted.

"ONDCP also seems to suddenly have a better grasp on why the vast majority of people who need treatment do not get it," said Robinson. "Under Walters, ONDCP claimed that drug users were in denial and needed to be compassionately coerced to seek treatment. In the 2010 Strategy, ONDCP outlines numerous problems with delivery of treatment services including problems with the nation's health care systems generally. The 2010 Strategy seems so much better informed about the realities of drug treatment than previous Strategy reports," he added.

"The strategy also repeatedly calls for meaningful change in areas such as alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders; drug testing in courts (and schools, unfortunately, in spite of data showing it is ineffective); and reentry programs for inmates who need help finding jobs and places to live upon release from prison or jail. ONDCP also implicitly acknowledges that that federal drug control policy imposes costs on families (including the break-up of families), and shows with real data that costs are greater economically for imprisonment of mothers and foster care for their children than family-based treatment," Robinson noted.

"ONDCP makes the case that we are wasting a lot of money dealing with the consequences of drug use and abuse when this money would be better spent preventing use and abuse in the first place. Drug policy reformers will embrace this claim," Robinson predicted.

"The strategy also calls for a renewed emphasis on prescription drug abuse, which it calls 'the fastest growing drug problem in the United States,'" Robinson pointed out. "Here, as in the past, ONDCP suggests regulation is the answer because prescription drugs have legitimate uses that should not be restricted merely because some people use them illegally. And, as in the past, ONDCP does not consider this approach for marijuana, which also has legitimate medicinal users in spite of the fact that some people use it illegally," he said.

The Verdict

"President Obama's first National Drug Control Strategy offers real, meaningful, exciting change," Robinson summed up. "Whether this change amounts to 'change we can believe in' will be debated by drug policy reformers. For those who support demand side measures, many will embrace the 2010 Strategy and call for even greater funding for prevention and treatment. For those who support harm reduction measures such as needled exchange, methadone maintenance and so forth, there will be celebration. Yet, for those who support real alternatives to federal drug control policy such as legalization or decriminalization, all will be disappointed. And even if Obama officials will not refer to its drug control policies as a 'war on drugs,' they still amount to just that."

Weird Drama at the Drug Czar's Office

We've all been wondering why the National Drug Control Strategy hasn't been released yet, and it looks like Newsweek figured it out:

These have been tough times for White House drug czar R. Gil Kerlikowske. After spending much of his first year in office crafting a new anti-drug strategy, he had hoped to unveil it two months ago with President Obama. But Kerlikowske couldn't get on Obama's schedule. When he pressed, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel directed him to Vice President Joe Biden, say two Kerlikowske advisers who asked not to be identified talking about an internal matter. But after agreeing to a joint announcement, Biden had to cancel at the last minute when the health-care bill landed on the president's desk. Appearing before a House subcommittee recently, Kerlikowske got hammered for not having yet produced the drug-control strategy that his office was charged with releasing by last Feb. 1.

That's crazy. I guess when the drug czar was getting yelled at by Congress for not releasing the damn thing, he couldn’t exactly explain that he'd been sitting on it for months waiting for Obama or Biden to attend the press conference. What an embarrassing mess. The whole story, along with a copy of the strategy itself, was leaked to Newsweek by someone with access. Mark Kleiman speculates about who that may have been, and Pete Guither has some thoughts on it as well.

Personally, I don't know what to think, except that it sounds like the White House doesn't give a crap about the drug czar's office, and someone decided to expose them for it. It all sounds like a blatant attempt to throw Obama/Biden under the bus for not caring about the drug problem, and it won't work because everyone who knows what the National Drug Control Strategy is also knows that it's a bunch of predictable propaganda regardless of who's standing on stage when it's released.

To make a long story short, it sounds like years of deceptive and hysterical drug war posturing from the drug czar's office have left a legacy of irrelevance and ill-repute. Richly deserved, indeed.

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