Obama's Drug Strategy: Worth Waiting For?


The White House finally announced its long-awaited drug control strategy yesterday, after postponing the announcement several times. (Left: White House “drug czar” R. Gil Kerlikowske meets with President Obama.) The strategy calls, among other things, for allocating more federal resources to drug prevention and treatment, and alternatives to incarceration. Was it worth waiting for?

The Crime Report's Contributing Editor Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists, asked Peter Reuter, former director of the Rand Corporation's Drug Policy Research Center and currently a professor with joint appointments to the School of Public Policy and the Department of Criminology at the University of Maryland, for his take.

The Crime Report: What's your overall view of President Barack Obama's new strategy?

Peter Reuter: It's a change in the right direction. It is important to set a goal of decreasing drug use among 12 to 17-year-olds by 15 percent in five years. The strategy sets drug policy in a broader context than did strategies issued by the George W. Bush administration. For example, this document discusses the impact of drug abuse on HIV/AIDS. In some years of the Bush administration, the strategy didn't mention HIV/AIDS at all.

TCR: Are the strategy's specific goals on reducing drug use reasonable?

Reuter: The administration seeks to cut the number of chronic drug users by 15 percent. That's an important statement. (It shows) they're not focused just on youth drug abuse.

TCR: On the issue of penalties for drug abuse, the strategy supports measures like alternatives to incarceration by means of drug courts and prisoner re-entry programs. Is this enough?

Reuter: It's significant that the administration calls it a national strategy and not just a federal one. But it should have dealt more with what states are doing on sentencing in drug cases: it's a huge issue. The drug strategy doesn’t propose to change a punitive sentencing regime, which is both unjust and expensive.

TCR: The White House says it is seeking a 3.7 percent increase in federal spending on drug treatment and a 13.4 percent increase for prevention of drug abuse .Hw meaningful is that?

Reuter: The discussion of federal budgets is a bit deceptive, but it mostly compares Obama's second budget with his first. A better comparison would have been between the current budget proposal and 2009, the last year of the Bush administration. The growth in federal anti-drug spending over those two years is only 1.5 percent, way below inflation.

The Obama administration has trumpeted drug prevention, but the proportion of federal spending on treatment as a part of the overall anti-drug budget is actually below that in the last year of the Bush administration. Similarly on treatment: spending would actually increase from only 23 percent to 25 percent of total federal spending on drugs. It's a modest change at best.

TCR: What about its discussion of stopping drugs from entering the United States? The administration proposes a 2.4 percent spending increase.

Reuter: I had thought there might be less proposed to be spent on interdiction, but that budget is untouched even though interdiction's impact is quite questionable.

TCR: How about reducing drug production in countries of origin?

Reuter: In the international area, which is only 15 percent of total government antidrug spending, there is a proposed increase of 1 percent, but that is misleading. We would spend $100 million more in Afghanistan and reduce spending elsewhere. We have lots of reasons to be skeptical about the eradication effort in Afghanistan. It's hard to make programs work in a country where are knowledge of local realities is very limited.

In general, the strategy is far too optimistic on international programs. We can push the drug trade around but we can't reduce it substantially.

TCR: Is the strategy factually accurate?

Reuter: Some of the data used are questionable. The strategy says that cocaine prices have risen recently and purity has dropped, based on an analysis by the Drug Enforcement Administration that outside experts are not allowed to review. An analysis for the Office of National Drug Control Policy by the Institute for Defense Analyses, whose methodology is documented, found that the retail price of powder cocaine dropped from about $145 per gram to $125 between 2002 and 2007.

Photo Via Office of National Drug Control Policy

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