The White House

Office of the National Drug Control Policy

Remarks by Director Kerlikowske before the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission

Statement of the Government of the United States of America Before the 51st Regular Session of Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission

Delivered by R. Gil Kerlikowske

Director, National Drug Control Policy, United States

Washington, DC
May 9, 2012

As Prepared for Delivery –

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. It is my great pleasure to be with you here today to represent the United States.  Last month, the Obama Administration released the 2012 National Drug Control Strategy. Our Strategy is focused squarely on reducing American drug use and its consequences.  We recognize how seriously drugs impact the health and safety of citizens throughout the Hemisphere and we are committed to doing our part to reduce demand by treating this problem as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice one.

Our Strategy highlights that we are in the midst of an historic shift towards an evidence-based approach to break the cycle of drug use, crime and incarceration.  All around the country I see signs of progress.  I see a new commitment by our public health and public safety officials to work together to direct drug users to the services or programs they need to recover.  When I visit treatment centers I hear from people in recovery and I am reminded again and again that people can be treated for the disease of addiction. There is much more to be done, especially with regard to the abuse of prescription drugs, but we are moving forward.

When I travel outside the United States, many people ask me if America will ever reduce its demand for drugs.  The answer I tell them is very simple. The answer is yes.  American drug use has already declined by one third since its peak in the late 1970s.  This progress is particularly evident with regard to cocaine—and is demonstrated across the full range of measures.  According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, cocaine use in the United States has declined by 40 percent during the past 5 years.  This unprecedented reduction in overall cocaine use has been accompanied by lower rates of cocaine use among young people; significant declines in the number of arrestees testing positive for cocaine in many U.S. cities; and historic reductions in the rates of adults testing positive for cocaine in the workplace.  This progress is the result not only of efforts within the United States, but also the efforts of other countries throughout the Hemisphere.  I should also note that the use of methamphetamine is also down by 50 percent during the past 5 years. These reductions in use translate into decreased harm to our citizens from cocaine.  In fact, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that there has been a 41 percent reduction in the number of cocaine overdoses in the United States since 2006.

Of course, even if the United States continues to reduce its consumption as we intend, there will still be significant global demand for drugs such as cocaine. 

The 2011 World Drug Report found that as the U.S. market for cocaine is declining, the amount of cocaine consumed in Europe has doubled in the last decade. This report showed that the volume and value of the West and Central European cocaine market—$33 billion—is approaching parity with the US market—$37 billion.  

Every country in our Hemisphere is challenged by drug abuse and drug trafficking.  As all of you know from your own experiences, despite claims made by some, there is no “silver bullet” solutionto the world drug problem. 

Prior to this job, I spent my entire career working in law enforcement. I saw first-hand the threat that criminal organizations and violent gangs pose to our society.  I also recognized – as the vast majority of law enforcement in the United States does – that we simply cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem.  In my work then, and in my work now, I have seen the immense value in dealing with crime intelligently; strategically.

That is why I was pleased to see the discussion about drug policies during the

Summit of the Americas in Cartagena last month.  In particular, I want to highlight something very important President Santos said during the Summit.  He said:

“We have the obligation to see if we’re doing the best that we can do, or are there other alternatives that can be much more efficient?...One side can be all the consumers go to jail. On the other extreme is legalization.On the middle ground, we may have more practical policies.”

We could not agree more strongly with this “Third Way,” middle ground approach to drug policy in the Americas.  When implementing drug policies we must rely on science, not dogma.  We must rely on research, not ideology.   That is why the President’s drug policy we released three weeks ago outlines specific alternatives and actions to take that are compassionate, effective - and most importantly - grounded in science.    

We can no longer afford to live in the past.  Two decades of scientific research undergone by the world’s leading neuroscientists show that drug addiction is a disease of the brain, not a moral failing of the individual.  And our institutions are adapting to that reality.

Let me provide you with a few examples.  In the Obama Administration, we are taking action to make a clear distinction between criminals who are driven by an underlying substance use disorder—even if they are involved in drug sales—and hardened, professional criminals. To break the cycle of drug use and crime, it is our policy that the first group be directed into supervised treatment so the underlying health disorder can be addressed.  Each year, in fact, we divert about 120,000 people into treatment instead of incarceration through drug courts in America.  

We have also endorsed programs like Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment, which work to “medicalize” our approach to the drug problem by helping health institutions recognize the signs and symptoms of drug addiction early. 

The Affordable Care Act is also revolutionary, because for the first time, it makes drug treatment a required benefit for all Americans who suffer from substance abuse disorders – nothing short of a revolution in how we deal with substance use in the U.S..

But we can’t stop there.  We are also looking toward the future of drug policy reform by supporting new and innovative programs that show promise in reducing drug use and crime.  For example, our H.O.P.E. probation program in Hawaii combines close supervision with drug testing and swift, certain, but brief sanctions for violations to achieve an 86 percent reduction in positive drug tests among probationers.  It is effective in reducing incarceration rates and as part of U.S. policy we are now working to expand this model to communities across the United States. 

As we work to emphasize public health solutions, we recognize that we must continue to bring justice to those who threaten public safety and our democratic institutions.

I believe the same approach can be applied at the international level.  For the first group—people with substance use disorders that need treatment—the United States is assisting partners in the Hemisphere through exchanges of best practices, technical assistance programs, professional meetings, and direct assistance for demand reduction.  For this reason, I could not be more proud that my Deputy Director for Demand Reduction, David Mineta, is chairing CICAD’s Demand Reduction Experts Group and working with the first-rate experts in the Hemisphere and the talented staff at CICAD on an ambitious working group agenda. 

The second group—major criminals and transnational criminal organizations that wreak havoc throughout the Hemisphere—requires a different type of attention.  These organizations pose a significant challenge—they do not just prey on our citizens through drug distribution, but through human trafficking, contraband smuggling, financial fraud, and extortion wherever they operate. 

The United States takes very seriously our responsibility to disrupt and dismantle major drug trafficking groups operating within our borders. Last year, U.S. law enforcement agencies disrupted or dismantled 612 drug trafficking organizations on the Attorney General’s Consolidated Priority Organization Target list, which focuses on the major drug trafficking and violent criminal organizations operating within the United States. 

We have task forces operating in every part of our country to identify and disrupt major drug distribution networks within the United States.

We welcome a dialogue on the best tactics to address the threat posed by transnational criminal organizations. We recognize that it is appropriate to examine what works best.  But we also recognize that transnational criminal networks would not disappear if drugs were made legal. 

Why?  Because transnational criminal organizations do not derive all their revenue from drugs.  And they would not disband if drugs were legalized.  They are diversified businesses, profiting from human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, intellectual property theft, and other crime.  And any potential tax revenue from legalization would never come close to offsetting the costs to society imposed by the increases in drug use that would result.  Our experiences with legal substances are instructive in this regard.  For example, U.S. Federal excise taxes collected on alcohol in 2007 totaled around $9 billion, and states collected around $5.6 billion. Taken together, this is less than 10 percent of the more than $185 billion in alcohol-related social costs such as healthcare, lost productivity, and criminal justice system expenses.

There is, unfortunately, no simple solution here.  But there is a path forward. The details of this path should be debated, discussed, and evaluated.  The United States will be an active partner in this discussion.  But as we move forward, there are some core principles that are important to my government and are also already integrated into the 2010 OAS Hemispheric Drug Strategy and the Plan of Action that CICAD approved last year:

  • Criminal justice institutions must be strengthened. This includes not just police, but prosecutors, the judiciary, prisons, and probation services.
  • The tools of information collection, analysis, protection, and exchange— including use of informants and wiretaps—are vital for successful investigations, prosecutions, and disruptions.
  • Extradition can help relieve the short-term difficulties in managing cases against major drug kingpins.
  • The seizure of illicit assets, control of chemical precursors, alternative development programs, eradication, and interdiction can help weaken criminal groups and reduce drug availability.
  • There must be shared responsibility with developed countries financing relevant technical expertise, training and assistance.

We should examine our successes and failures forthrightly, and we should adjust our approach as necessary—but there is no need to open up the UN Conventions, which we reaffirmed through the Political Declaration at the 2009 Commission on Narcotic Drugs and which form the foundation of our new Hemispheric Drug Strategy and Plan of Action, just approved last year.  The conventions provide sufficient flexibility for Member States to implement new, evidence-based, and modern approaches to reducing drug use and its consequences in the 21st century.

Of course, I recognize that responding to the threat posed by transnational criminal organizations is a very difficult challenge.  The United States is committed to a close partnership with all of you as we confront this threat. And we are equally committed to closely collaborating to help people within our countries who struggle with addiction and hope for recovery.

Thank you the opportunity to speak to you today. I will be here at the meeting for a while longer and I hope to say hello in person to many of you and hear your views on our common efforts to protect the health and safety of our citizens