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A Drug Policy Strategy for the 21st Century

April 17, 2012



Over the past 20 years, the general trend in U.S. political attitudes toward the war on drugs has gradually shifted from an emphasis on supply-end eradication to reduction of demand on the home front. Even so, critics across the political spectrum have been waiting with bated breath for viable policy recommendations.

They might not have to wait much longer. On April 17th, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) released a 21st Century Drug Policy Strategy.

The fact that we’re discussing a strategy “for the 21st century” when we’re already twelve years in is indicative of just how frozen in time U.S. drug policy has been.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the new strategy is the push to move away from the false dichotomy of either prohibition, or legalization; the Obama Administration seeks a third way, based on three primary ideas:

1. addiction is a disease that can be treated;

2. people with substance use disorders can recover; and

3. innovative new criminal justice reforms can stop the revolving door of drug use, crime, incarceration, and rearrest.

These three ideas—notably referred to as “facts” in the document—are the driving force behind policy reform based on “innovative and evidence-based public health and safety approaches aimed at reducing drug use and its consequences.”

The Executive Summary lists seven core focus areas intended to achieve a balanced approach between public health and safety policy reform, complete with pie chart to illustrate the ONDCP’s priorities:

The timing on this one was interesting, given that the release of the 2012 strategy came only two days after leaders from throughout the Western Hemisphere failed to reach consensus on a regional drug policy during the Summit of the Americas.

However, this rejection of the false dichotomy actually seems to complement a suggestion made by Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina in an opinion piece for The Guardian, in which he called for the abandonment of ideology—whether prohibition or liberalization.

Molina reiterated that Guatemala will not fail to honor its commitments to the international fight against narcotrafficking, but he also asserted that his country is unwilling “to continue as dumb witnesses to a global self-deceit.” He left little room for confusion as he explained his position:

We cannot eradicate global drug markets, but we can certainly regulate them as we have done with alcohol and tobacco markets. Drug abuse, alcoholism and tobacco should be treated as public health problems, not criminal justice issues. Our children and grandchildren demand from us a more effective drug policy, not a more ideological response.

While the Obama Administration does not yet seem prepared to treat narcotics like alcohol and tobacco—limited legalization with clear limitations, and consequences—choosing to treat non-violent drug-related offenses as public health problems instead of criminal justice issues is what the 2012 strategy is all about.

Click here to access the six-page list (.pdf) of over 100 specific action areas. The full 69-page strategy (.pdf) can be found here.

  1. Robert Magnan permalink

    Implicit, but not explicit, in your commentary, is the concept of severe treatment of the pusher….and GOD I hope you meant to say that.

    I’m not sure how many other people who will read this grew up in a “bad” neighborhood, but I sure did, and the dealer, IMHO, is the LOWEST form of life imaginable.

  2. Robert Magnan permalink

    “Please note, my comment is awaiting moderation”…geez…take a number, I’ve been talking this way for 56 years….!!!!!

  3. rogerhollander permalink

    No false dichotomy between prohibition and legalization? Prohibition did not work for alcohol and is not working for narcotics. This is obvious to the point of being axiomatic. Prohibition increases the value of a substance geometrically, thus introducing the criminal element and bribed government officials. Of course the public health harm reduction strategy is the only one that makes sense, but in the context of probition and the counter productive war on drugs, it is useless. The Obama administration will not support decriminalization for political and economic reasons; to suggest that there is somehow a third way (and that the advocates of decriminalization are somehow being “ideological”) is naive if not disengenuous.

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