Drug Czar’s Marijuana Rhetoric Still Rings of “Reefer Madness”; Support for Drug Courts Belies Claims to Treat Addiction as a Health Issue
But Drug Czar Has Progressed in Addressing OD Crisis and Recognizing Value of Naloxone as an Effective Antidote
Washington, D.C.— The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (more commonly known as the Drug Czar’s office; ONDCP) released its 2013 National Drug Control Strategy today. The strategy has shifted a little from previous national drug strategies, and is being called a “21st Century Approach.” The Drug Czar’s rhetoric has evolved over the last couple of years – reflecting the fact that three-quarters of Americans consider the drug war a failure – emphasizing the need to treat drug misuse as a health issue and stop relying on the criminal justice system to deal with the problem.
The strategy, however, calls for the expansion of drug courts, which continue to treat drug users in the criminal justice system, where punishment is often the response to addiction-related behaviors such as positive urine screens or missed appointments.
“The Administration says drug use is a health issue but then advocates for policies that put people in the criminal justice system,” said Bill Piper, director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Until the Drug Czar says it is time to stop arresting people for drug use, he is not treating drug use as a health issue no matter what he says. I know of no other health issue in which people are thrown in jail if they don’t get better.”
In addition to relying on drug courts to solve the problem, the Administration continues to prioritize low-level drug arrests, trample on state medical marijuana laws, and waste money on supply-side interdiction approaches. The only significant shift in the Drug Czar’s approach is his response to the escalating overdose epidemic. The Administration advocates for greater access to naloxone, a low-cost opiate antidote that reverses the effects of an opiate overdose.
“Director Kerlikowske should be applauded for taking steps to reduce drug overdose fatalities but he’s not doing much to reduce drug arrests or the many other problems associated with treating drug use through the criminal justice system,” said Piper.
Advocates say simply expanding public health interventions is not enough given that this Administration’s drug policies remain focused on punitive approaches – including arresting more than 750,000 Americans annually for low-level marijuana possession and refusing to recognize the medical value of marijuana.
Every independent commission to examine marijuana policy has concluded that its harms have been greatly exaggerated – including the 1944 LaGuardia Report, President Nixon’s 1972 Schaffer Commission report, and the 1999 Institute of Medicine report commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use. Sixteen states have decriminalized marijuana, and voters in two states – Washington and Colorado – recently decided to regulate marijuana like alcohol. New polling data from Pew shows that a majority of Americans support legalization of marijuana and believe the federal government should not enforce federal laws in states where it is legal.
“The Administration’s continued opposition to marijuana law reform shows they’re not serious about reforming U.S. drug policy,” said Piper. “At the very least they should stop getting in the way of states that are trying to improve public health and safety by regulating marijuana like alcohol.”