Obama administration signals change from prison to treatment in drug war

By Kay Steiger
Thursday, April 25, 2013 14:01 EDT
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Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske via AFP
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White House Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske signaled that the Obama administration may be open to a long-overdue shift from law enforcement to addiction treatment in a release of a new policy proposal on the so-called “war on drugs.”

“We’ve relied far too long on the criminal justice system,” the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy said at a press conference covered by the Baltimore Sun, touting the success of increasingly popular “drug courts,” which emphasize treatment and rehabilitation over prison time.

Kerlikowske, who worked in law enforcement for 37 years, pointed out that his own thinking on drug policy has evolved. ”I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t change,” he said of drug abusers, according to the Sun. “I really didn’t have the understanding that science brings.”

In the report, the White House wrote, “While law enforcement will always play a vital role in protecting our communities from drug-related crime and violence, we simply cannot incarcerate our way out of the drug problem. Put simply, an enforcement-centric “war on drugs” approach to drug policy is counterproductive, inefficient, and costly.”

“Through a new rule made possible by the Affordable Care Act,” the report continued, “insurers will now be required to cover treatment for substance use disorders just as they would for any other chronic disease. Specifically, this new rule expands mental health and substance use disorder benefits and Federal parity protections for 62 million Americans, making it a key element in the Administration’s public health approach to drug policy in the United States.”

Still, Kerlikowske stopped short endorsing legalization, telling The Root, “We know that from a public health approach, legalizing drugs, thereby making them much more easily and widely available, would not be a very wise policy. But we also don’t think that people — particularly those that are possessing small amounts of marijuana — that having an arrest record, that being put into the system, is particularly helpful either.”

This leaves Colorado and Washington, states that took it upon themselves to fully legalize marijuana on the ballot in November, in murky territory. Kerlikowske, who once served as police chief in Seattle, said in a speech last week in Washington, D.C., “No state, no executive, can nullify a statute that’s been passed by Congress.”

h/t Maddow blog

Kay Steiger
Kay Steiger
Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story. Her contributions have appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Campus Progress, The Guardian, In These Times, Jezebel, Religion Dispatches, RH Reality Check, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @kaysteiger.
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