New White House Drug Control Strategy Would Emphasize Treatment, Not Jail Time

The Obama administration has announced dramatic shifts in the country’s drug policy that could amount to a revolution in the government’s approach. The new policy is based on three ideas – addiction is a disease that can be treated, addicts can recover, and reforming the way the criminal justice system works in terms of drug abuse could stop the cycle of the same people using drugs, committing crimes to get money for their drugs, going to jail, getting out of jail, and then getting rearrested.

Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, announced the changes, calling them "nothing short of a revolution." The old "War on Drugs" policies that included maximum sentences for drug offenders has clearly failed, he said, and it was "not humane or realistic, and not grounded in scientific evidence. … We cannot arrest our way out of our drug problem."

According to Mr. Kerlikowske, the White House was able to strike a middle ground between the old "war" approach and the other extreme, which would be the legalization of illicit drugs.

The 2012 National Drug Control Strategy would steer nonviolent drug offenders into treatment and use the health-care system to address addiction. There are over 100 specific actions in the strategy that involve screening, interventions, and treatment referral and the Affordable Health Care Act, the law that requires all Americans to buy health insurance. Drug treatment would become a required benefit.

"Our goal is to reform the public health system so we can learn to recognize the signs of drug addiction and intervene appropriately before the justice system becomes involved," according to Mr. Kerlikowske.

The 2012 National Drug Control Strategy would incorporate more outreach to young people ages 12 to 25, who use drugs at much higher rates than those over 26 years old, with an emphasis on community-based programs for youth. The request for funding includes about $10 billion to fund drug education programs and expand treatment access, $9.4 billion for law enforcement, and $3.7 billion for anti-smuggling operations.

"There is a real reason to be optimistic about these reforms," Mr. Kerlikowske said.