Obama’s 2010 Drug Policy Tokes, but Doesn’t Inhale Reform

By Kai Wright May 11, 2010

President Obama’s strategy for combatting drug use and trade is out, and it’s getting a welcome, if cautious, reception from reformers. As AlterNet’s Phillip Smith wrote yesterday, "While still heavy on the law enforcement side, the first Obama national drug strategy is a far cry from the propaganda-driven documents of Bush-era drug czar John Walters." Obama’s drug czar, former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, made a splash last year when he declared a rhetorical end to the war on drugs — he panned the phrase itself, if not the full set of ideas behind it. "We’re not at war with people in this country," he declared. Today, we’re seeing how Kerlikowske and Obama plan to match policy with that rhetorical shift, as the administration releases its first National Drug Control Strategy, which is the feds’ official statement of how they’ll combat drug use. (Read the leaked document here.) Kerlikowske is billing the strategy as a move toward putting public health on equal footing with criminal justice. “It’s a disease, it’s diagnosable and it’s certainly something that can be treated — but it’s not a war,” he told Bloomberg. “If you are able to do an intervention with somebody on drugs early, it saves money — treatment is about half the cost of incarceration,” he added. “You can’t arrest your way out of the problem.” The plan would boost prevention funding by more than 13 percent and treatment funding by nearly 4 percent; overall, the administration wants to spend $15.5 billion in fiscal year 2011, including a 2 percent increase in domestic enforcement. The strategy also emphasizes alternatives to locking people up. Nonetheless, as one watchdog pointed out to Smith in AlterNet, nearly two-thirds of overall spending remains focused on enforcement, the same as under the Bush administration.