The White House unveiled a new drug policy strategy that veers away from imposing heavy prison sentences for illicit drug use and focuses instead on prevention and treatment.
Officials said the new approach looks at drug addiction as a treatable disease rather than a crime.
“For US drug policy, this is nothing short of a revolution in how we approach drug control,” Gil Kerlikowske, director of the National Drug Control Center, told reporters at a press event.
He added that “the strategy emphasizes the importance of bolstering efforts to prevent drug use before it starts.”
“There’s a real reason to be optimistic that these reform efforts will reduce and continue to reduce drug use and its consequences on society,” said Kerlikowske.
Officials said that the administration would move away from outmoded policies like the mass incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders, and toward an approach that balances public health and safety.
“My colleagues — police and others — simply put, often say we can’t arrest our way out of the drug problem,” said Kerlikowske, the so-called US “drug czar,” who said that current thinking by health experts views drug addiction as a disease of the brain that can be prevented and treated.
He added, however, that “the drug threat is far from over and, to be sure, there is more work to be done.”
The policy shift comes at a time when illicit drug use in the United States, broadly speaking, is on the decline. The administration said drug abuse currently is only about one-third the rate it was in the late 1970s.
Officials also report a 40 percent drop in current cocaine use and a 50 percent decline in the use of methamphetamine.
But the administration conceded that the picture is not entirely rosy, acknowledging in a 60 page report that illicit drug abuse has risen among teenagers, from 16.8 percent in 2006 to 19.2 percent last year, and that US youth perceive marijuana use as benign.
The administration says its revamped drug policy increases penalties on major drug traffickers while accelerating efforts to send non-violent drug offenders into treatment instead of jail.
Officials also said there has been a spike in prescription drug abuse, despite a year-old strategy to curb this growing scourge.
“We know people obtain these drugs from the medicine cabinet,” Kerlikowske told reporters. “Few people recognize the dangers of prescription drugs.”
The Drug Policy Institute, a leading pro-reform group, dismissed the new drug strategy as being “almost identical” to those of previous administrations.
The Obama administration “is prioritizing low-level drug arrests, trampling on state medical marijuana laws, and expanding supply-side interdiction approaches — while not doing enough to actually reduce the harms of drug addiction and misuse,” said Bill Piper with the Alliance.
The “vast majority” of Americans seeking drug treatment “do not have access to it. Instead, our nation’s drug policies remain focused on punitive approaches,” he said.
The announcement comes just days after a summit in Colombia where leaders from across the Americas agreed to consider alternatives to the US-led “War on Drugs,” which since it was launched in 1971 has claimed tens of thousands of lives but yielded only meager results.
At the summit Obama said he opposed legalizing drugs, but agreed for the first time to direct talks on the thorny issue of rampant drug consumption in the United States, the world’s most lucrative market for illegal drugs.
Obama also agreed to increase US efforts to stem the flow of money and arms toward Latin America.
Officials said they also would step up efforts to secure America’s southern border with Mexico, increase US anti-drug cooperation with overseas partners and target violent international drug gangs.
Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey, a key law enforcement partner, said in a statement that the overall goal of the new policy is to break “the cycle of drug crime, incarceration and arrest.”
“Those of us in law enforcement understand that too often drug addiction is the underlying cause of crime,” he said.
The administration said it is seeking about $10 billion from Congress for drug education programs and pay for expanded access to treatment programs for drug abusers.
The White House budget for 2013 also seeks $9.4 billion for domestic law enforcement, $3.7 billion for interdiction efforts, and $2 billion for international programs.