The White House

Office of the National Drug Control Policy

"Drug Policy and Drug-Related Policing in the 21st Century": Director's Remarks at the Chinese People’s Public Security University

As prepared for delivery --

Thank you for that kind introduction.  I’d also like to thank the faculty and University staff for your important work in law enforcement education and training.  Law enforcement is a position of great responsibility and public trust, and I am very proud of my many years of service in law enforcement.  Institutions such as the Public Security University can play a vital role in fostering new ideas in policing, shaping policing practices, and advancing new law enforcement strategies in China and around the world.  I appreciate the opportunity to talk about the U.S. approach to drug policy and to describe what lessons we have learned from our experience in drug-related policing over the past decades.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy

Let me begin by telling you a bit about the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).  ONDCP’s primary role is to establish drug-related policies, priorities, and objectives for the Nation.  Our objectives are to reduce illicit drug use, manufacturing, and trafficking, drug-related crime and violence, and drug-related health consequences.  To achieve these goals, we coordinate the Nation's anti-drug efforts and develop guidelines for cooperation among Federal, state, and local entities.  We set budget priorities for every Federal department and agency involved in drug issues, including the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Transportation, State (our Foreign Ministry), and Defense.

In 2010, we released the Obama Administration’s inaugural National Drug Control Strategy – the Administration’s blueprint for reducing drug use and its consequences in the United States.  The 2010 Strategy and subsequent annual Strategies outline a balanced and comprehensive drug control policy recognizing that an effective approach must include prevention, early intervention, treatment, support for those in recovery from addiction, law enforcement, and international partnerships. 

Lessons from My Career in Law Enforcement in the United States

Before President Obama appointed me as the Director of National Drug Control Policy in 2009, I’d spent 37 years – my entire professional career – in law enforcement.  Of course I had to deal with all of the challenges faced by law enforcement officials – including domestic disturbances, robberies, acts of violence, gang activity, and drug- and alcohol-related problems. 

As a practitioner of community policing, I also met with community leaders in the cities I served.  Community policing, which I know has a long tradition in China, focuses on problem-solving, being proactive about crime and partnering with citizens, community stakeholders, government agencies and others to create effective solutions.  During community meetings, I heard from many local residents.  One of the issues that came up frequently was the difficulty communities had with drug and alcohol abuse. 

Individuals who were abusing drugs and alcohol were sometimes arrested for petty crimes, disorderly conduct, or selling small amounts of drugs.  Citizens complained that they did not feel safe on their neighborhood streets or were not comfortable letting their kids use the parks when drug trafficking or drug use was occurring nearby.  So when we got complaints, we arrested the substance abusers.  Arrestees would often go through short-term detox, receive a fine, and be back on the street within a day or two.  I realized that this approach was not solving the problem.  

For much of my law enforcement career, I thought, like a lot of people do, that drug addiction was primarily a moral failing, and that the cure was a simple matter of willpower; of addicts finding the resolve to stop using drugs.   It was over the years I served as police chief in Seattle that my thinking about drug addiction began to change. Like many of my colleagues around the United States, I was looking for a better, more permanent solution.  An approach that would keep the community safe, make wise use of officers’ time, and produce better results at a reasonable cost.  Not overnight, but gradually, as I listened to researchers and physicians steeped in the latest science, I began to learn about addiction as a disease.

When President Obama asked me to come to the White House and serve as his top advisor on drug policy, I was committed to combining my experience in law enforcement with the latest research on the disease of addiction to formulate a new approach to drug policy.  There was much to learn, and much had been written about drug use and its consequences by academics, former officials, and representatives of non-governmental organizations.  I met with many experts, including treatment and prevention specialists.

We had to learn to work smarter in order to break the wasteful cycle of arrest, incarceration, release, and re-arrest.

I realized that in the United States we had often focused on prisons and not on drug prevention and treatment.  Such an approach is an enormous waste of resources and destined to end in failure.  Incarceration on its own – without treatment– has repeatedly proven to be unsuccessful in reducing drug use among criminal offenders.  Many of my former colleagues who are police chiefs in the United States have become outspoken on the need to support both law enforcement and public health services to address substance abuse.  Law enforcement will always play an integral role in drug policy, but we must broaden our perspective.  We cannot respond to substance abuse only with arrests and incarceration. 

The Obama Administration Approach

My main goals at ONDCP continue to be reorienting our approach to the drug problem so that it is more balanced and grounded in science.  We must address both the public safety and public health sides of the equation.  Achieving significant and lasting progress in reducing drug use and its consequences will require combining the best elements of prevention, treatment, and law enforcement, and breaking down the silos that exist among them.  We know from decades of research from our Nation’s top neuroscientists that drug addiction is a disease – one that can be prevented and treated – if we invest properly in evidence-based policies and programs. 

The Obama Administration has encouraged our law enforcement agencies to support prevention and treatment efforts.  Now it is much more common in the United States for law enforcement agencies to meet with treatment experts, to offer use of their facilities for community prevention meetings, and to see treatment centers and law enforcement agencies working together to get those with substance abuse problems the help they need.

As part of this effort, I have directed our High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program – a Federal, state, and local law enforcement task force program funded by ONDCP – to enhance support for drug prevention.  Over the past 3 years, we have funded initiatives for our HIDTAs to work with communities to stop drug use before it starts, expanding the number of HITDAs that support prevention from 4 to 20.  HIDTA prevention initiatives facilitate increased coordination between the law enforcement and prevention communities to reduce drug abuse and its negative consequences.  This direct cooperation between law enforcement agencies and drug prevention and treatment experts is a key to successful community anti-drug efforts.  Law enforcement in the United States is, I believe, changing for the better by working to ensure that those citizens who require drug treatment services receive the help that they need.

Public Health Interventions

The U.S. National Drug Control Strategy is heavily focused on preventing substance abuse and involvement with the juvenile or criminal justice systems.  Scientific evidence makes it clear that substance use prevention is the most cost-effective, common-sense approach to promoting safe and healthy communities.  Put simply, it saves lives and cuts costs.  That is why the Obama Administration is coordinating an unprecedented government-wide public health approach to reduce drug use and its consequences in the United States. 

We’re also promoting early intervention, because when a person develops a substance abuse problem, catching that problem early, before it worsens, gives us the best chance to stop it from becoming a chronic disorder.  Early-intervention programs – such as screening for substance abuse by doctors, nurses, and other health professionals – is especially promising.  In the United States, we have introduced screening programs in many of our emergency rooms and health facilities.  The way screening works is simple – when people come to a hospital with a broken arm, or for their annual check-up, they are asked about their substance use.  If they are identified as at risk for developing a chronic substance use disorder, they receive information about the risks of abuse and are offered further voluntary counseling.  Researchers have found that even short, structured discussions – brief interventions – during which patients confidentially discuss their substance abuse with a medical professional, can have a significant effect in getting the patient to understand the risks of their behavior and discouraging further substance abuse.

Treatment is another pillar of our drug policy.  We have had success treating addiction as a disease – a disease that requires the same kind of evidence-based health remedies called for with other chronic diseases.  Expanding our support for treatment puts a whole new range of effective tools at our disposal.  There are several evidence-based treatment techniques that have been shown by rigorous research evaluations to be effective.  These include medication-assisted treatment and behavioral therapies – both of which can be conducted either in an inpatient or outpatient setting.  In the United States, our treatment system is not perfect; we are constantly evaluating and studying how to maximize and sustain good treatment results.  However, we are very focused on putting Federal funding into those programs that adhere to our National Institute of Drug Abuse’s science-based national treatment standards.

Another important element of our demand reduction policy is support for what we call “recovery.”  Recovery efforts are designed to help individuals with substance use disorders overcome or “recover” from the disease of addiction.  Recovery services, such as opportunities for ongoing counseling after treatment is completed, housing, employment assistance, all of these services can help maintain the gains of treatment at modest costs.  In addition, we are seeking to ensure that former users retain their full right to work, study, and acquire housing.  It is vital that individuals with substance use disorders receive treatment for their addiction so that they can become fully integrated into society.  

International Cooperation

Let me say a few words about the importance of international cooperation in addressing the drug problem.  Drug trafficking, money laundering, and related organized crime are clearly global problems that require many countries to work together.  During my visit to China, I have had the opportunity to meet with senior officials from the Ministry of Public Security and other government departments to talk about our bilateral cooperation.

There is much important anti-drug work China and the United States must do together.  Our governments are partnering to address drug trafficking issues that affect both countries. For example, we are cooperating to address the problem of cocaine being trafficked from the Americas into Asia, which we know is a concern for China.  We are also working to prevent precursor chemicals and synthetic drugs produced in Asia from being diverted into drug production in the Western Hemisphere, a concern for the United States.

This bilateral cooperation – which includes the exchange of intelligence, regular communications between law enforcement experts working specific cases, and discussion of legislative and policy changes needed by both countries – is already excellent.  My hope is that this visit further improves the already well-established collaboration by our nations to bring to justice drug traffickers and to protect the health and safety of citizens of both China and the United States from dangerous drugs.

Because of our limited time today, I have not been able to discuss all aspects of the drug problem.  However, my office has produced a short document entitled “Principles of Modern Drug Policy,” which I have attached at the end of the written version of my speech.  This document is a summary of the U.S. approach to all aspects of the drug problem.  Many of these principles, such as ensuring balanced strategies, supporting treatment and prevention, and the importance of disrupting trafficking organizations, I have referenced briefly in my remarks today.

In conclusion, let me say that the core mission of law enforcement – ensuring public safety – remains the focus of our work.  But when we embrace the fact that preventing crime before it occurs is just as important as responding quickly to a crime scene, we understand that both of these things protect public safety in the end.   During my work as a young lieutenant in Florida, I was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to serve in several different communities, where I was exposed to a wide range of challenges and opportunities. 

It was during this time I first began to realize that wherever you find a law enforcement officer who is willing to learn from their experiences and use that knowledge to make a difference, that is where you find leadership.  My experiences as a police lieutenant still inform what I do each day as President Obama’s senior drug policy advisor.  Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.  I am happy to take any questions you may have.

The Principles of Modern Drug Policy can be found here.