White House Official Says Drug Addiction Is A Public Health Issue, Not A Crime

Gil Kerlikowske, President Obama’s top adviser on drug policy and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, gave a speech yesterday arguing for the treatment of drug addiction as a public health issue, not a crime. “Drug addiction is not a moral failing on the part of the individual, but a chronic disease of the brain that can be treated,” said the White House drug czar. Kerlikowske argued that the paradigmatic shift in policy focus is necessary because an emphasis primarily on incarceration and the criminal status of drug users fails to treat the problem by disregarding prevention, treatment, and recovery:

According to estimates from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 8 percent of Americans age 12 or older — about 21 million people — needed but did not receive substance abuse treatment at a specialty facility in 2010.

We are taking a close look at laws meant to deter drug use that unintentionally hurt people on the path to recovery. Research from the National Institute of Justice found 38,000 state and local statutes that impose additional penalties on people convicted of crimes-including drug-related crimes.

These laws burden people who have already served their sentences-in other words, they have already paid their price back to society. We must modify or repeal laws that keep a qualified person in recovery from getting the basics they need to rejoin society.

Kerlikowske’s speech reflects the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s strategy report, released in April, which “calls for more than 100 changes in US law and counter-drug programs.” The report estimates that in March, 23.5 million Americans were in treatment for alcohol or narcotics addiction.


In a similar vein, the American Psychiatric Association, which produces the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or D.S.M., announced last month that it would “expand the list of recognized symptoms for drug and alcohol addiction, while also reducing the list of symptoms required for a diagnosis.”

The Obama administration has been criticized in the past for its emphasis on enforcement and disapproval of decriminalization. John Turney of the New York Times noted that prior to a speech given by Kerlikowse in 2009, Vice President Joe Biden introduced him by saying, “Quite frankly, more cops on the street is one of the best ways to keep drugs off the street.”

Nina Liss-Schultz