Timed to the release of the White House’s new “21st Century drug policy,” U.S. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske admitted Wednesday that he has misunderstood drug abuse during his 37-plus year law enforcement career. Now, he said according to ABC News, he finally views drug abuse as a public health issue:
I’ve spent my entire career in law enforcement. For most of those 37 years, like most people, I believed that a person addicted to drugs had a moral problem — a failing, a lack of will.
I was wrong. Addiction is not a moral failing.
Kerlikowski’s statement accompanies a White House “National Drug Control Strategy,” dubbed a “science-driven plan” that treats “our Nation’s drug problem as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue.” On the subject of tackling addiction, the plan announces several important developments, including that insurance plans will be required to cover treatment of people with substance abuse disorders, the federal government will fund some vouchers for individuals who cannot afford treatment programs, and that the President requested a $1.4 billion increase in funding for drug abuse treatment.
On criminal justice, the report’s introduction makes an equally significant statement: “This policy underscores what we all know to be true: we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem.” But the substance of the report only partially matches its rhetoric, with a focus on alternative drug courts and prisoner re-entry, but not on reforming laws or decreasing arrests for minor nonviolent offenses.
While drug courts, which dole out sentences tailored to defendants with drug abuse problems, are an improvement over typical prison sentences, they presuppose arrest, criminal charges, and conviction or guilty plea for these defendants. As the Drug Policy Alliance notes, drug courts are “where punishment is often the response to addiction-related behaviors such as positive urine screens or missed appointments.” “Until the Drug Czar says it is time to stop arresting people for drug use, he is not treating drug use as a health issue no matter what he says,” said DPA Policy Director Bill Piper. “I know of no other health issue in which people are thrown in jail if they don’t get better.”
The paper also expresses a commitment to “eradicate marijuana production” through law enforcement, without a concurrent recognition that this production is legal under some state medical and recreational marijuana laws. On sentencing, substantive reform proposals are particularly absent. The 96-page report includes a one-paragraph section on sentencing that notes only that the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the disparity between cocaine and crack sentences from 100 to 1. It does not note, however, that the disparity is still 18 to 1, or that other draconian drug laws and sentencing schemes persist.
The report’s messaging emphasizes “science” and notes federal support for ongoing studies on abuse and best enforcement practices. But the report makes no mention of federal suppression of scientific research on the medical benefits of cannabis or other now-illegal drugs, in spite of considerable evidence that those benefits are both significant and unique.