Even though the administration of President Obama has championed “change” as its hallmark, many of its domestic policy and funding programs reflect more a “continuation” of the big spending ways of his predecessor. However, in the area of drug control policy, early signs are that Obama is serious about charting a new course — and a better one.
Barely moved into his office in the nation’s capitol, Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, more commonly known as the office of the “drug czar,” signaled a bold change in direction and emphasis in the federal government’s long-running anti-drug program. In one of his first public statements, Kerlikowske officially jettisoned the term “War on Drugs” to describe the federal effort to combat mind-altering drugs. The short-hand nomenclature had been in common usage since 1971, when then-President Nixon first attached the term to the national anti-drug program.
Kerlikowske’s law enforcement career began in Florida in the second year of the “war” he now plans to alter and took him to police chief in Seattle in 2001, where he stayed until being sworn in as drug czar. Despite his strong law enforcement credentials, Kerlikowske will not have an easy job of shifting the direction of the massive and costly anti-drug effort directed from Washington. For four decades, the primary focus of the federal anti-drug effort has been enforcement, interdiction and incarceration as opposed to demand reduction, prevention and treatment.
The figures on the allocation of the nearly $15 billion dedicated directly to the federal anti-drug effort in the current 2009 fiscal year illustrate the magnitude of the task facing Kerlikowske. Fully two-thirds of that amount is consumed by enforcement, interdiction and international activities; only one-third goes toward treatment and prevention. Obama’s preliminary requests for the 2010 budget barely change those ratios.
Still, the signal Kerlikowske is sending in the deceptively simple vocabulary shift away from the war rhetoric is important. Although his agency has no enforcement power, it helps set the president’s “policies, priorities and objectives” in this arena. If Kerlikowske is in fact reflecting Obama’s priorities, and, more importantly, if the president is willing to back him up, then true change may indeed be in the offing for the government’s drug program, and change is long overdue.
Regardless of whether one is a “drug warrior” or a “drug legalizer,” it is difficult if not impossible to defend the 38-year war on drugs as a success. Illicit drugs are every bit as easy to score on America’s streets and in her schools now as they were more than three decades ago. Last year, just under 84 percent of 12th-graders considered that marijuana was “very easy” or “fairly easy” to obtain; virtually the same as in a 1975 survey.
America’s prisons continue to burst at the seams with drug offenders, who are serving longer and longer sentences (thanks in part to mandatory sentence terms which came into vogue in the 1980s). While the country’s population was increasing by 46 percent from 1970 to 2007, our prison population exploded by 547 percent. The lion’s share of that huge increase is the result of drug and drug-related arrests, which soared by a factor of 14 from 1968 to 2007. The direct cost to America’s taxpayers of housing this prison population is staggering, with the Bureau of Prisons’ budget mushrooming more than 740 percent since 1971, to more than $5.5 billion.
More important than the monetary cost of this multidecade effort, however, is the human cost. If Obama and Kerlikowske are indeed serious about refocusing not only rhetoric but action toward demand reduction (and focusing the enforcement effort on violent criminal activities), then the years ahead might actually witness some true successes in keeping our nation’s youth off mind-altering drugs.