The White House

Office of the National Drug Control Policy

Obama Drug Policy: Science over Dogma, Evidence over Ideology

Center for American Progress
Washington, DC
May 1, 2012

As Prepared for Delivery –

Thank you. First I’d like to thank Neera Tanden and her staff for having me here today and hosting this event. 

I’d like to begin by sharing a concern many of us in the public health and safety community share about drug policy.  Over the past few years, the public debate on drug policy lurches between two extreme views.

Let me characterize those views.  On one side we have very vocal, organized, and well-funded advocates who insist that drug legalization is a “silver bullet” for addressing our Nation’s drug problem. 

On the other side of the debate are those who insist that a law-enforcement-only “War on Drugs” approach is the way to create a drug free society.  If only we would spend more on prisons and enforcement and increase arrests and seizures, the logic goes, the drug problem will at some point just go away.

The Obama Administration strongly believes that neither of these approaches is humane, compassionate, realistic, or – most importantly – grounded in science.  These approaches also do not acknowledge the complexity of our Nation’s drug problem or reflect what science has shown us over the past two decades. 

That is why two weeks ago we released a National Drug Control Policy that pursues a “third way” for our Nation to approach drug control. This is a 21st Century approach to drug policy. It is progressive, innovative, and evidence-based and represents, what we believe, is the way ahead for drug policy.

Along these lines I was pleased to see 60 Minutes last Sunday ran a story on the pioneering work being done by Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  The piece showed the Institute’s groundbreaking work in the science of addiction, reflecting what we’ve learned about the disease and highlighted the future direction of drug policy. 

In fact, NIDA is the source of 85 percent of the world’s research on drug abuse and we could not be prouder of that.  I recommend all of you take time to watch it online if you haven’t already—a link to the video is on our Twitter feed at ONDCP.

Let me take a moment to state the extent of our challenge and why our policies could not come at a more important time.  Today, more Americans are dying from drug-induced deaths than from any other form of injury death, including traffic crashes and gunshot wounds.  Making matters worse, drug use among young people is increasing while youth perceptions of harm regarding some drugs are weakening.

Apart from its impact on health and safety, our Nation’s drug problem also continues to place obstacles in the way of economic prosperity. 

Just last year, the Department of Justice released data that the health, workplace, and criminal justice costs of drug abuse to American society totaled $193 billion in 2007.  Contributing to this immense cost are the millions of drug offenders who are under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

For states and localities across the country, the costs of managing this system have grown significantly.

These facts underscore the need for a different approach to drug policy – one that treats drug addiction as a disease and promotes a criminal justice system where drug-related crime is addressed in a fair and equitable manner for every American. 

Simply put, we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem.  That is why we are taking actionto reform our public health and safety systems so we can learn to recognize the signs of drug addiction and, intervene before it becomes a criminal justice issue.

Before I talk about our approach, let me take a moment to give you some facts that show just how much we have accomplished in reforming our system and restoring balance to drug policy over the past three years.

  • In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law.  It was the first time in four decades a mandatory minimum drug law has been rolled back.  This was an important and long-overdue criminal justice reform. It dramatically reduced a 100-to-1 disparity between sentences for powder and crack cocaine that disproportionately affected minorities.
  • During the past three years, we have spent more than $31 billion to support drug education and treatment programs, more than what we spend on U.S. Federal law enforcement.
  • To break the cycle of drug use and crime, we’ve worked to divert non-violent drug offenders into treatment instead of jail through drug courts.  There are now more than 2,600 of these specialized courts across the Nation, diverting 120,000 people annually. 
  • During the past three years, we’ve provided more than $370 million in funding through the Drug Free Communities program to more than 700 local community coalitions made up of organizers working to prevent drug use among teens.
  • Recognizing that drug use is a public health issue, The Obama Administration last year released the first-ever National Prevention Strategy, which calls for eliminating health disparities and increasing education.
  • To help lift the stigma associated with drug addiction and support the millions of Americans who are in recovery from drug and alcohol addition, we created the first-ever Recovery branch here at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
  • Internationally, we’ve devoted more than $1.2 billion during the past three years to alternative development programs that provide economic incentives, and we have increased security to farmers in drug producing regions in our hemisphere.
  • Three years ago, the Obama Administration became the first in history to lift a longstanding Federal ban on needle exchange programs.  (Unfortunately, Congress has just reinstated the ban through a policy rider on an appropriations bill.)

The Strategy we just released builds on this record of drug policy reform and outlines more than 100 specific actions that will realign the way we deal with our Nation’s drug problem.

For example, our policies include support for 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.

The Strategy emphasizes the importance of bolstering efforts to prevent drug use before it ever starts by supporting a community-based National Youth Anti-drug Media Campaign and the Drug Free Communities Support Program. These programs help ensure every new generation of young people have the opportunity to reach their full potential free from drugs.

Recognizing that smart and innovative law enforcement efforts remain a vital part of our drug policy, the Strategy supports programs that target violent Transnational Criminal Organizations; break down silos among Federal, state, local, and tribal enforcement agencies; and continue to reform the criminal justice system through innovative reentry programs like the Second Chance Act. 

It also continues to support this Administration’s unprecedented efforts to secure the Southwest border by providing support to the historic levels of personnel, technology, and infrastructure we have already deployed and strengthening international partnerships. 

This Strategy also looks ahead to the future of drug control reform.  There are revolutionary and innovative programs that are taking hold in local communities across America. The Wall Street Journal recently brought attention to some of these programs in an essay by drug policy experts Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins, and Angela Hawken.  This piece argued that there is no quick fix to the complex issue of drug abuse and prevention. And we agree.

These experts pointed to the success of programs such as Drug Market Interventions, which close down open-air drug markets through community-based strategies and offer drug offenders, a second chance. 

Another one, Hawaii’s Project HOPE probation program, dramatically reduces probation violations through swift, predictable, and immediate sanctions. These programs have demonstrated records of success not only in dissipating criminal activity, but in actively building community.

Let me close by saying there’s real reason to be optimistic this reform will reduce both drug use and its consequences on society.  Recent data show progress can be achieved.

Meth and cocaine use in America are down dramatically. Since 2006 cocaine use in America has declined by 40 percent.  Meth use is also down by half in that same period of time.  Surveys show that despite recent increases in the use of some drugs, fewer young people are abusing prescription drugs. 

Additionally, about 120,000 people each year are referred to treatment instead of jail through drug courts.  And last year, for the first time in four decades, the state prison population declined.

We are on the right track to reduce the consequences of drug use and drug trafficking. 

Withthat I am happy to take questions.