The Obama administration’s statement, 'A Drug Policy for the 21st Century', makes satisfying reading. Basically, the White House is saying (publicly through its own website) that it accepts that the decades of US drug policy reliance on widespread arrest and harsh punishment of people who use drugs has been an expensive mistake. This has been coming for some months now, with increasingly clear statements from the US federal administration that a change of direction is needed in drug policy, but the clarity of this statement is crucial, in that it finally puts to bed any notion that the ridiculously harsh US sentencing policies for non-violent drug offences can produce any benefit for American society.

I commend Drug Czar Kerlikowske, and the other advisers to President Obama who must surely have approved this statement, for their bravery in making this step. However, the obvious question now is – if you now accept that mass incarceration was a mistaken and  ineffective policy, what do you plan to do about the hundreds of thousands of Americans who will spend tonight (and many more nights) in prison as a result of this mistake. There are a wide range of legislative initiatives aiming to reduce the use of incarceration for non-violent drug offences in the future, but nothing that addresses those currently languishing in US prisons under this injustice.

As someone who has disagreed with much of US drug policy for the three decades I have worked in this field, it is  heartening to be increasingly finding more to support than to condemn. I do however, foresee some remaining problems with some of the other proposals in Mr Kerlikowske's statement:

  • The focus on prevention. While in theory it is of course better to prevent a problem than respond to it later, one of the lessons of the last 30 years is that prevention programmes may do a lot to raise awareness of risk, and improve self-esteem and decision making, but are not a key factor in reducing overall drug use prevalence. If the White House sets ambitious prevalence reduction targets on the back of an increased investment in prevention, it is likely to be disappointed.
  • Similarly, the commitment to early screening and intervention with those developing drug problems is welcome, but it is important to recognise that recovery rates amongst those receiving those interventions are relatively low. We are better at treating long entrenched drug dependence than we are in preventing its onset.
  • Finally, the commitment to promote the US Drug Court model internationally carries real dangers. Offering alternatives to custody is a much needed reform in many countries, but the drug court model is an expensive one (that most countries cannot afford) and still applies tough sanctions to relatively minor offenders. There are many more cost effective ways to divert minor offenders to treatment and support (see the IDPC Policy Guide), and the US authorities need to promote the full range.

The US Federal Government has unrivalled diplomatic and human resources around the world with which to promote humane and effective drug policies – I hope that this new 21st Century approach will now be reflected in their work.

Photo Credit: Whitehouse.gov

Mike Trace, IDPC Chair and former UK Deputy Drug Czar

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