National Blueprint for Drug Policy Reform Released Today in Roanoke, VA

Today, we will unveil the latest update to President Obama’s plan for reducing drug use and its consequences, the 2014 National Drug Control Strategy. This Strategy, which continues to be shaped by the input of people across the country like you, 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.

Data have shown that in several major U.S. counties, crime and substance use are linked. Most recently, we saw that in five counties, one-third or more of adult male arrestees tested positive for an illicit substance at the time of their arrest. Only one-quarter or fewer of all arrestees had ever participated in any outpatient drug or alcohol treatment and less than 30% had ever participated in any inpatient drug or alcohol treatment. Many of these men will be caught in a painful cycle of arrest, incarceration, substance use disorders, and re-arrest. Our prisons and jails are already overcrowded with people who desperately need compassionate, evidence-based treatment for the disease of addiction--not a jail cell.

The plan we released today calls for reforming our criminal justice system to find alternatives to incarceration – and effective interventions across the entire system to get people the treatment they need.

Here’s the problem: far too often, for people who need it most, the criminal justice system can seem like the only way to get help for a substance use disorder. That’s because until recently, prohibitively high costs and limited access to treatment put it out of reach for millions of people in need.

We know that only about 10 percent of people with a diagnosable substance use disorder actually receives treatment at a specialty facility. While several factors contribute to this abysmal statistic, much of that disparity is owed to a lack of healthcare coverage – and that’s about to change. Through a rule made possible by the Affordable Care Act, we are requiring insurers to treat substance use disorders in the same way they would any other chronic disease. Specifically, this new rule expands coverage of mental health and substance use disorder services to 62 million Americans. 

The plan we released today calls on healthcare providers to prevent and treat addictive disorders just like they would treat any other chronic disorder, like diabetes or heart disease. It calls on law enforcement, courts, and doctors to collaborate with each other to treat addiction as a public health issue, not a crime.

We chose to release the 2014 Strategy in Roanoke because, in three important ways, it’s a microcosm of the policies our office has been promoting since 2009:

  1. Access to treatment, a focus on prevention, and compassion. Roanoke is home to one of the largest behavioral healthcare centers in the region. The center is co-located with a Drug Free Communities coalition, which prevents substance use among at-risk youth, and a program called Project Link, which helps opioid-dependent women and pregnant mothers get treatment and give birth to drug-free babies.
  2. Alternatives to incarceration. In 2011, the Roanoke Police Department worked with community and faith leaders in the Hurt Park neighborhood to shut down the open-air drug market operating there and drastically reduce violent crime in the area. As part of this intervention, community leaders came together to offer the low-level, non-violent drug offenders involved in the sweep a life-changing alternative: either face prosecution and lengthy sentences, or change your lives with the support of the community. In Roanoke, I met with one of those ex-offenders who is now employed full-time and caring for his family.
  3. Local solutions for local challenges. In a corner building in downtown Roanoke operates a community action center with roots in President Lyndon Johnson’s landmark anti-poverty legislation. Half a century ago, local leaders established what is now called Total Action for Progress (TAP), which operates 30 programs in the Roanoke Valley region aimed at improving employment opportunities at-risk youth, early childhood development, and re-entry and support services for veterans. I visited TAP to speak with young people and a veteran whose lives have been changed by these programs, and was inspired by their stories of hope. 

Like the rest of the country, Roanoke has seen a devastating rise in heroin and prescription painkiller abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose deaths surpass homicides and traffic crashes in the number of injury deaths in America.[1] In 2011, more than 110 Americans, on average, died from overdose every day. Prescription painkillers were involved in over 16,900 deaths that year. Heroin was involved in more than 4,300.[2]

In response to this opioid epidemic, this Strategy updates the President’s 2011 Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Plan by calling for increased access to naloxone, a lifesaving overdose-reversal medication. 

The widespread use of naloxone in the hands of law enforcement, firefighters and emergency medical personnel will save lives. It can also serve as a critical intervention point to get people into treatment and on the path to recovery.

Today, there are millions of Americans in recovery from substance use disorders who are healthy, responsible, and engaged members of their communities. The Strategy outlines steps to help lift the stigma associated with substance use disorders. It also works to reform the laws and regulations that impede recovery from substance use disorders, including those 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.

The National Drug Control Strategy released today is rooted in the belief that illicit drug use is a public health issue, not just a criminal justice problem. As the innovative law enforcement and social support programs in Roanoke prove, this philosophy can reduce illicit drug use while building healthier, safer, more vibrant communities.

Learn more about what’s in the 2014 National Drug Control Strategy and sign up for email updates from my office.

Michael Botticelli is the Acting Director of National Drug Control Policy. 


[1] National Center for Health Statistics/CDC, National Vital Statistics Report, Final death data for 2011 (June 2014).

[2] National Center for Health Statistics/CDC, National Vital Statistics, unpublished special tabulations (June 10, 2014).

 

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