Yesterday afternoon, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, joined Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, Chief Thomas Manger of the Montgomery County Police Department, and The Urban Institute’s Nancy La Vigne for a panel discussion on 21st century drug policy reform. Their conversation revealed big changes in the way we address, treat, and even talk about drug issues in the United States.
Here are three ways drug policy is evolving:
The “War on Drugs” is over: One of the biggest shifts in recent years involves the way we frame organized efforts to reduce drug abuse among Americans. “War on Drugs,” a part of the American vernacular since its declaration by President Nixon more than 40 years ago, is no longer an accurate representation.
“[‘War on Drugs’] wasn’t going to define the Obama administration’s approach to the drug problem,” said Kerlikowske. “I could never really remember any of my colleagues around the country ever talking about it as a war on drugs. When you think about the oath of office that we took, to protect people, and to work with them and make sure they felt they had a law enforcement agency that could be trusted…The war analogy is not a particularly good one to use.”
We need more than “simplistic bumper sticker approaches” to fight drug abuse, Kerlikowske added, explaining that the American public is ready for a more substantial dialogue on the problem. It’s a trend that’s gaining traction globally as well—the Organization of American States just released a report that encourages more comprehensive drug policies.
Drug abuse is viewed as a public health issue—not just a criminal justice issue: Early in the program, La Vigne introduced Kerlikowske as the person who “replaced the word ‘war’ with the word ‘treatment.’”
“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” said Kerlikowske. “We have to approach drug policy from a public health standpoint, not just the criminal justice standpoint.”
In this regard, one of the administration’s priorities is equal access to drug treatment. “The Affordable Care Act is one important tool in this area,” said Kerlikowske. “It is revolutionary for drug policy. For the first time, it makes drug treatment for substance abuse disorders a required health benefit.”
Equal access to treatment also applies those in prison. Research (including our own) has shown that those who treat their addictions while incarcerated are less likely to commit additional offenses upon their release.
Drug courts, which stress treatment over punishment, are another important—and research-supported— piece of the puzzle.
There’s a new focus on “decriminalization” (but not necessarily legalization): Though no one on the panel expressed favor for blanket legalization, decriminalization received enthusiastic support, especially from Manger, the Montgomery County police chief.
Manger described the challenges faced by school resource officers, who are “taking dope out of lockers every single day.” As Manger put it, "nothing good happens when the only option we have is to charge [these kids] criminally, and see what kind of sanctions we can get from the courts. That’s not the way to go. That’s where decriminalization comes in."
“So many of the cases that we deal with are strictly possession cases,” Manger continued. “They’re cases that involve very minor, if any, other criminal activity, and those are the ones where decriminalization makes sense. Let’s get them the treatment they need.”
As the discussion came to close, all the panelists agreed that the future of drug policy reform looks promising, though not without a few challenges.
“We’ve made great strides, particularly in the last decade, in our thinking about drug policy, criminal justice policy, the reforms that have been enacted. It’s very different than it was at the height of the wars on crime and drugs in the ‘80s and early ‘90s,” said the Sentencing Project’s Mauer. “But I think we’re still at a point where changing politics, changing policy, changing culture is a very difficult thing to do, and we have a long way to go.”
Photo by Simona Combi, Urban Institute