Three months ago, I wrote here that it was much too early to say what impact President Obama's election would have on federal drug policy. More clues are emerging, but it is becoming clearer that it may be a full year before things change where they really count in Washington: the federal budget.
We do have a new director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (commonly known as the drug czar): former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske. Just 12 days after he took office in May, Kerlikowske appeared before a House committee overseeing his agency.
No one can be expected to announce huge departures in that short a period, but Kerlikowske did make a rhetorical shift from the Bush White House when he told the committee that “the Obama administration understands addiction is a disease, and its treatment needs to be addressed as part of a comprehensive strategy to stop drug use.” He said that fewer than 10 percent of those who need treatment are getting it.
Obama did make some proposals to alter federal spending in the fiscal year that starts in October, but by this week–late June–Congress was well on the way to acting on the budget. Kerlikowske mentioned a new $100 million program called “Improving School Culture and Climate,” but that is not much money by national standards.
John Carnevale, a former budget director in the drug czar's office who also testified at the House hearing, said he welcomes the Obama administration's rhetorical emphasis–more talk about preventing drug abuse than about trying to stop narcotics from entering the country. Carnevale says, however, that If Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Kerlikowske are serious about changing the focus, they should seek at least to double Washington's antidrug aid to local areas. “We must go to where the kids are” with more and better school-based programs, Carnevale says.
That and many other initiatives probably won't develop until Kerlikowske has had a chance to develop the Obama version of the National Drug Control Strategy, which would affect federal spending that starts in the fall of 2010. By then it may be apparent whether the economy will permit allocating many more resources to drugs and a host of other domestic problems.