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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.

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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."

Has Anyone Seen Former Drug Czar John Walters Lately?

A post at the LEAP blog points out that John Walters has been conspicuously quiet recently. After beginning his new position as executive vice president at the Hudson Institute in January, Walters was producing pro-drug war editorials on a monthly basis, but we haven't seen anything from him since spring.

LEAP speculates:

Perhaps, toward the end of 2008, Hudson thought it a brilliant notion to bring on Walters to spearhead prohibitionist drug policy thought leadership for the conservative apparatus.

But after witnessing the amazingly anti-prohibitionist shift that the public discourse on drug policy has taken throughout 2009, it seems that Hudson and the larger conservative establishment -- or anyone, for that matter -- just don't have all that much use for what John Walters has to say right about now.

I'd love to think that Hudson told him to stop, or better yet, that he's been writing feverishly this whole time and newspapers just won’t print him anymore. Still, my first guess is that it's just a coincidence and Walters will resurface any day now to once again stink up the drug policy debate with his familiar brand of unhinged prohibitionist propaganda.

And you know what? I hope he does. John Walters's tenure as drug czar ushered in an unprecedented period of progress for the reform movement, as he traveled the nation alienating the media and terrifying small children. I swear, every time he opens his mouth, thousands of new people start questioning the validity of his beliefs. So please John, don't leave us now. Things are just starting to get interesting.

Higher Education: House Passes Student Loan Bill With Further Limitations on Drug Warrior "Aid Elimination Penalty"

The infamous Higher Education Act (HEA) anti-drug provision, or "Aid Elimination Penalty," which bars students committing drug offenses from receiving financial aid for specified periods of time, took a step toward further dilution this week when the US House of Representatives Thursday approved H.R. 3221, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA). In the passed bill is language that restricts the penalty to those convicted of drug sales, not mere drug possession.

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Mark Souder conceding the amendment
The bill will next go to a conference committee, whose job will be to produce a reconciled version of H.R. 3221 and a yet-to-be-passed Senate bill. The final version must then be reapproved by both the House and the Senate. If that final version contains the same or very similar language, it will mark the second significant reduction of the penalty, the decade-old handiwork of arch-drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). In 2006, the provision was scaled back to include only drug convictions that occurred while students were enrolled in college and receiving financial aid (a change supported by Souder himself).

The House victory came only after Souder attempted and finally gave up a last ditch effort to undo the reform. The Indiana conservative first submitted an amendment to strip out the new language in the Education & Labor committee where the bill originated earlier this year, a vote which he lost. This week, he submitted the amendment as the bill came up for a vote on the House floor, but then withdrew it after Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) suggested compromise language that would limit the provision's effect to felony drug convictions instead of drug sales convictions.

That compromise language came too late to be included in the House floor vote Thursday. It would presumably be offered up during conference committee.

But that wasn't the only reason Souder withdrew his amendment. As he conceded in a House speech Thursday, "I was probably going to lose today."

More than 200,000 students have already lost financial aid under the Souder aid elimination penalty because of drug convictions. Passage of SAFRA, with either the sales conviction language or the felony conviction language, would reduce the pool of students who would potentially be victimized by it. It's not full repeal, but it's another step closer.

More Big News: Needle Exchange Legislation Passes US House of Representatives

As I noted here two weeks ago, legislation to repeal the ban on use of federal AIDS funds for needle exchange programs was included in a House subcommittee's health budget bill. The language survived an attempt on the House floor to repeal it, and so has made it through the full House of Representatives. Satisfyingly, the Congressman who tried to delete the language was Mark Souder, who also lost a committee vote on Tuesday to significantly gut his anti-student aid drug law. Souder's pro-AIDS amendment lost 211-218. The flip side is that 49% percent of Congress voted to continue spreading HIV and Hepatitis throughout our communities.
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Financial Aid: House Committee Lightens Up on Students with Drug Possession Convictions

For a decade, a law authored by Indiana Republican Rep. Mark Souder has been an obstacle to higher education for people with drug records. The Higher Education Act (HEA) anti-drug provision, known more recently as the "Aid Elimination Penalty," barred students with drug offenses from receiving financial aid for specified periods of time.

Under pressure from students, educators, and others in a growing coalition to repeal the provision, Souder himself supported a partial reform in 2006 that restricted the provision's reach to those convicted of drug offenses while in school, and further changes in 2008 to help motivated students regain their eligibility early. Still, pressure to repeal it completely remained.

Now, with Democrats firmly in control of the Congress, the provision is once again undergoing scrutiny. On Tuesday, the House Education and Labor Committee voted to further shrink the provision's impact by limiting it only to students who are convicted of selling drugs, not those convicted simply of drug possession.

The vote came as part of broader legislation reforming the student loan system. That legislation must still pass the House and the Senate before the reform takes place. The committee turned back an amendment by Souder to strip the language reforming the drug provision by a vote of 20-27.

A Surprise Encounter With Former Drug Czar John Walters

I've wondered a thousand times what I'd do if I ran into John Walters somewhere around D.C. I figured that the odds favored it happening eventually. A few times, I even thought I saw him, only to discover that it was just some stiff angry guy in a suit scowling at schoolchildren and spitting at hippies.

But as luck would have it, long-time marijuana policy reformer and smooth-talker Steve Fox just happened to be riding the right subway train at the right time:

While riding the Metro’s Red Line yesterday, I spotted former drug czar John Walters entering the train. When he ended up standing right beside me, I realized I couldn’t pass up the chance for a conversation. I know it sounds like a fruitless endeavor, but I’m an eternal optimist and thought, “Maybe if we have a casual lunch together, he’ll come to see the folly of keeping marijuana illegal.”

Whole story at the MPP blog. I think Steve handled it maturely, but I always thought it would be funny to do the exact opposite of what he did. Instead of introducing myself as an opponent, perhaps I'd be a rabid drug czar fan. "John Walters, is that really you? I just loved your policies. I used to read PushingBack.com every day. Did you see how Obama's people deleted all the old posts? What's up with that? Anyway, I was thinking about starting an anti-legalization organization with some of my friends from Yale. Maybe we could do lunch sometime?"

If that plan somehow worked, I bet I'd learn more in an hour of pretending to agree with him than a lifetime of butting heads. Hey Steve, what train was that?

More Than Words

You Can Make a Difference

 

Tell the drug czar to make good on his promise to banish the war on drugs.

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Fax the drug czar.

Reading yesterday's Wall Street Journal, my jaw dropped. President Obama's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, "wants to banish the idea that the U.S. is fighting 'a war on drugs.'"

I want to believe, but I'm skeptical. Aren't you?

If you're like me, you're wary of politicians, especially those at the helm of the drug war.

But Kerlikowske is the first drug czar to acknowledge what you and I already know: the war on drugs is actually a war on people. This is a significant opening. So let's send the drug czar a message: give us results that live up to your promises.

I was just on Capitol Hill yesterday and listened as Attorney General Eric Holder called for reforming the unfair sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

This means the nation's top two drug war officials are both talking about reform. They now have an amazing opportunity to stop the self-censorship that has kept us from having a vigorous national debate on drug policy.

It's your dedicated efforts that have gotten us this far. Your letters, your faxes, your emails and phone calls... they're making a difference. We have started to shift the drug war paradigm.

But Kerlikowske needs to make good on his statements to the press. Until we see demonstrable results, we're not going to let up for even a moment. Real human lives hang in the balance.

You and I deserve a government that tells us the truth -- we won't settle for empty promises. Take action today to demand a real end to the war on drugs.

Thoughtfully yours,

Bill Piper
Director, Office of National Affairs
Drug Policy Alliance Network

Press Release -- Drug Czar Calls for End to 'War on Drugs': Advocates Cautiously Optimistic

For Immediate Release: May 14, 2009 Contact: Tony Newman at (646) 335-5384 or Ethan Nadelmann at (646) 335-2240 Drug Czar Calls for End to 'War on Drugs' and Advocates Treatment over Incarceration Kerlikowske Reaffirms Administration Support for Clean Syringes to Reduce HIV, Halt to Raids on Marijuana Dispensaries and End the Crack and Powder Cocaine Disparity Advocates Cautiously Optimistic: Pledge to Pressure Administration to Match Actions to Rhetoric White House drug czar, Gill Kerlikowske called for an "end to the war on drugs" and said the drug problem in this country should be a public heath issue and not a criminal justice issue. His comments came during an interview with Gary Fields of the Wall Street Journal and appear in today's paper. "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 and we are not at war with people in this country," Kerlikowske told the Journal. He also told the Journal that the Obama Administration is likely to deal with drugs as a public health issue and would favor treatment over incarceration in trying to reduce illicit drug use. "We are cautiously optimistic" said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Kerlikowske appears to be in line with President Obama's call for a paradigm shift to public health and he along with the Justice Department support the range of drug policy reforms Obama pledged as a candidate." As a presidential candidate, then-Senator Obama said the 'war on drugs is an utter failure' and that he believes in 'shifting the paradigm, shifting the model, so that we focus more on a public health approach.' He also called for eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, repealing the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs to reduce HIV/AIDS, and stopping the U.S. Justice Department from undermining state medical marijuana laws. Kerlikowske confirmed he supports needle exchange programs as a "part of a complete public-health model for dealing with addiction" and that he plans to work with Congress and other agencies to alter current policies. Recently the Justice Department came out against the crack/ powder disparity and the attorney general said that the administration will no longer raid marijuana dispensaries that comply with state laws. Advocates pledge to hold Kerlikowske and the administration to their words and make sure their actions meet their rhetoric. "There were a couple of marijuana dispensaries raided since the Justice Department pledged to end the raids. The recent budget that was introduced still included a federal ban on funding clean syringes despite calling for an end to the ban" Nadelmann noted. "The proof will be in the pudding. We need to make sure the deeds match the words." ###

Drug Sense FOCUS ALERT: #403 White House Czar Calls for End to 'War on Drugs'

Readers of The Wall Street Journal today will find a headline and article which would have seemed unlikely last year even after the election. The Wall Street Journal competes with USA today for the top U.S. circulation spot with a circulation of over two million copies. The newspaper reaches an audience which is more influential. Articles and opinion items which question the war on drugs appear to be increasing as may be seen at http://www.mapinc.org/source/Wall+Street+Journal News items about our new drug czar are found at http://www.mapinc.org/people/Kerlikowske Both are worthy targets for your letters to the editor. ********************************************************************** Page: A3 Copyright: 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Contact: wsj.ltrs@wsj.com Author: Gary Fields WHITE HOUSE CZAR CALLS FOR END TO 'WAR ON DRUGS' Kerlikowske Says Analogy Is Counterproductive; Shift Aligns With Administration Preference for Treatment Over Incarceration WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's new drug czar says he wants to banish the idea that the U.S. is fighting "a war on drugs," a move that would underscore a shift favoring treatment over incarceration in trying to reduce illicit drug use. In his first interview since being confirmed to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske said Wednesday the bellicose analogy was a barrier to dealing with the nation's drug issues. "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," he said. "We're not at war with people in this country." Mr. Kerlikowske's comments are a signal that the Obama administration is set to follow a more moderate -- and likely more controversial -- stance on the nation's drug problems. Prior administrations talked about pushing treatment and reducing demand while continuing to focus primarily on a tough criminal-justice approach. The Obama administration is likely to deal with drugs as a matter of public health rather than criminal justice alone, with treatment's role growing relative to incarceration, Mr. Kerlikowske said. Already, the administration has called for an end to the disparity in how crimes involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine are dealt with. Critics of the law say it unfairly targeted African-American communities, where crack is more prevalent. The administration also said federal authorities would no longer raid medical-marijuana dispensaries in the 13 states where voters have made medical marijuana legal. Agents had previously done so under federal law, which doesn't provide for any exceptions to its marijuana prohibition. During the presidential campaign, President Barack Obama also talked about ending the federal ban on funding for needle-exchange programs, which are used to stem the spread of HIV among intravenous-drug users. The drug czar doesn't have the power to enforce any of these changes himself, but Mr. Kerlikowske plans to work with Congress and other agencies to alter current policies. He said he hasn't yet focused on U.S. policy toward fighting drug-related crime in other countries. Mr. Kerlikowske was most recently the police chief in Seattle, a city known for experimenting with drug programs. In 2003, voters there passed an initiative making the enforcement of simple marijuana violations a low priority. The city has long had a needle-exchange program and hosts Hempfest, which draws tens of thousands of hemp and marijuana advocates. Seattle currently is considering setting up a project that would divert drug defendants to treatment programs. Mr. Kerlikowske said he opposed the city's 2003 initiative on police priorities. His officers, however, say drug enforcement -- especially for pot crimes -- took a back seat, according to Sgt. Richard O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild. One result was an open-air drug market in the downtown business district, Mr. O'Neill said. "The average rank-and-file officer is saying, 'He can't control two blocks of Seattle, how is he going to control the nation?' " Mr. O'Neill said. Sen. Tom Coburn, the lone senator to vote against Mr. Kerlikowske, was concerned about the permissive attitude toward marijuana enforcement, a spokesman for the conservative Oklahoma Republican said. [drug war] Others said they are pleased by the way Seattle police balanced the available options. "I think he believes there is a place for using the criminal sanctions to address the drug-abuse problem, but he's more open to giving a hard look to solutions that look at the demand side of the equation," said Alison Holcomb, drug-policy director with the Washington state American Civil Liberties Union. Mr. Kerlikowske said the issue was one of limited police resources, adding that he doesn't support efforts to legalize drugs. He also said he supports needle-exchange programs, calling them "part of a complete public-health model for dealing with addiction." Mr. Kerlikowske's career began in St. Petersburg, Fla. He recalled one incident as a Florida undercover officer during the 1970s that spurred his thinking that arrests alone wouldn't fix matters. "While we were sitting there, the guy we're buying from is smoking pot and his toddler comes over and he blows smoke in the toddler's face," Mr. Kerlikowske said. "You go home at night, and you think of your own kids and your own family and you realize" the depth of the problem. Since then, he has run four police departments, as well as the Justice Department's Office of Community Policing during the Clinton administration. Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that supports legalization of medical marijuana, said he is "cautiously optimistic" about Mr. Kerlikowske. "The analogy we have is this is like turning around an ocean liner," he said. "What's important is the damn thing is beginning to turn." James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest law-enforcement labor organization, said that while he holds Mr. Kerlikowske in high regard, police officers are wary. "While I don't necessarily disagree with Gil's focus on treatment and demand reduction, I don't want to see it at the expense of law enforcement. People need to understand that when they violate the law there are consequences." ********************************************************************** PLEASE SEND US A COPY OF YOUR LETTER Please post copies of your letters to the sent letter list (sentlte@mapinc.org) if you are subscribed. Subscribing to the Sent LTE list will help you to review other sent LTEs and perhaps come up with new ideas or approaches. To subscribe to the Sent LTE mailing list see http://www.mapinc.org/lists/index.htm#form Suggestions for writing LTEs are at our Media Activism Center http://www.mapinc.org/resource/#guides ********************************************************************** Prepared by: Richard Lake, Senior Editor www.mapinc.org === . DrugSense provides many services at no charge, but they are not free to produce. Your contributions make DrugSense and its Media Awareness Project (MAP) happen. Please donate today. Our secure Web server at http://www.drugsense.org/donate.htm accepts credit cards and Paypal. Or, mail your check or money order to: DrugSense 14252 Culver Drive #328 Irvine, CA 92604-0326. (800) 266 5759

Former Drug Czar Doesn't Care if you Grow Marijuana


From our friends at SSDP, here's video of former drug czar Barry McCaffrey sounding strangely agnostic about the marijuana debate:



It's really a remarkable statement from a guy who presided over a massive escalation of the war on drugs. He says now that he's "not in public life" he doesn't care anymore. So I guess as drug czar he was just doing his job? Unbelievable.

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