The war on drugs isn’t working. Anyone listening?

President Obama doesn’t have a lot of boom in his bully pulpit. Too bad because his administration is trying to signal in multiple ways that the war on drugs is doing far more harm than good. And they’ve come up with another direction intended to address the decades of misguided criminal justice policy. This week, in unveiling the 2014 National Drug Control Strategy, Michael Botticelli, Acting Director of National Drug Control Policy, opened with this clear message: That the strategy “rejects the notion that we can arrest and incarcerate our way out of the nation’s drug problem. Instead, it builds on decades of research demonstrating that while law enforcement should always remain a vital piece to protecting public safety, addiction is a brain disorder—one that can be prevented and treated, and from which people recover.”

The strategy points to data that show that only one-quarter of all those arrested on drug charges have ever participated in any outpatient drug or alcohol treatment and less than 30% had ever participated in any inpatient drug or alcohol treatment. Instead what’s in store for drug users is “a painful cycle of arrest, incarceration, substance use disorders, and re-arrest.” The announcement linked the thrust toward treatment to what it described as a “devastating rise in heroin and prescription painkiller abuse.” The strategy calls for reform in laws and regulations that “place obstacles in the way of housing, employment, and obtaining a driver’s license or student loan because of a prior conviction for a drug-related offense.”

There is a lot in this “drug policy for the 21st century,” one that tries to recast drug dealing, drug use and drug addiction not as a war deploying scorched earth criminal justice imprisonment options but as a public health issue that fits into the complicated interplay of the Affordable Care Act.

Check out the report or this heads up blog that cautions that the Obama administration may talk a good game, as it does with immigration reform, but its actions speak otherwise and its ability to guide the public debate and local law enforcement is dubious.  Let’s not forget that the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports for 2012 (the most recent year reported) show that law enforcement nationwide made more than 12 million arrests. The category with the highest number of arrests was for drug abuse violations. That’s more than 1.5 million people arrested … to address a public health issue.

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