No Bumper Sticker Solution for the Drug Abuse Scourge


Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske (right) during a visit in 2009 to a drug counseling center.

Federal drug czar R. Gil Kerlikowske is claiming some success in his four-year campaign to shift the nation’s anti-drug policy towards a public health approach.

Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief who was tapped by President Barack Obama in 2009 to be Director of National Drug Control Policy, declared an end to the “war on drugs” rhetoric soon after taking office, while admitting he had no “bumper sticker” slogan to replace it.

It may not fit on a bumper sticker, but the new Obama mantra is “smart on crime policies that break the vicious cycle of drug use, crime, and incarceration in America,” Kerlikowske told an audience at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC yesterday.

That was a key conclusion of a newly issued administration drug control strategy, one using themes that in the last six months have finally been “taking hold,” Kerlikowske contended.

Speaking at a program on “21st century drug policy reform,” Kerlikowske said that overall drug abuse has dropped generally in the U.S. since the turn of the century, with the estimated number of cocaine and methamphetamine users each down more than 40 percent in the last five years.

Meanwhile, the number of drug courts that focus on getting treatment for drug abusers has risen to 2,700 from a start only two decades ago, and the Obama administration is seeking more money from Congress for prisoner re-entry and “justice reinvestment” programs that should help reform many addicts.

All is not well on the strong relationship between drugs and crime, however.

Kerlikowske released new data on arrestees in five cities, showing that well over half of them test positive for drugs–as many as 86 percent in Chicago.

Reaching back to a 2004 report, he said roughly half of prison inmates have drug problems, but only 15 percent of state prisoners are able to get treatment.

More treatment, and less incarceration for drug offenders, was a theme raised also by two speakers brought in to comment on his remarks: Police Chief Thomas Manger of Montgomery County, MD, a Washington, DC, suburb; and Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project, which advocates alternatives to incarceration.

None of the speakers would support marijuana legalization, and Kerlikowske offered no hints on how the U.S. Justice Department will respond to votes last November in Colorado and Washington state to legalize recreational use of the drug in conflict with federal law that declares it illegal.

Rather, Manger backed a “decriminalization” approach that would divert drug users to treatment or other programs that wean them off drugs without forcing them to go through the criminal justice process.

Mauer agreed with Kerlikowske that there have been “great strides in thinking on drug policy” in recent years.

But he said there is a “long way to go” in changing the culture of a criminal justice system that mostly favors prison terms as a penalty for drug abuse.

Policymakers could do a lot more than has been done so far to reduce the nation’s world-leading incarceration levels, he said.

Suburban chief Manger, who had just come from a meeting with his county’s police-school resource officers, said they backed the middle-ground “decriminalization” approach too.

“Taking dope out of student lockers daily,” the officers were “horrified” at any prospects of legalizing drugs but also don’t want to make mass arrests of abusers, Manger said.

Kerlikowske declared himself an optimist on reducing drug abuse, even though he hails from a law enforcement profession “not known for its optimism.”

He mentioned that he had served as drug policy director for four years, much longer than the average Cabinet secretary—possibly a hint that he may decide to move on to another government job and hand the drug challenge over to someone else.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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