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White House Unveils New 'Science-Based' Drug Policy

Matt Pressberg |
April 24, 2013 | 8:17 p.m. PDT

Executive Producer

Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske announced a new treatment-based policy Wednesday. (Tulane Public Relations/Flickr)
Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske announced a new treatment-based policy Wednesday. (Tulane Public Relations/Flickr)
The White House unveiled its new drug policy agenda Wednesday, emphasizing a “science-based” approach focused on early intervention and treatment instead of incarceration, but notably avoiding any separate mention of marijuana.

As the Baltimore Sun reports, Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Policy, presented the plan at a press conference at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, a symbolic gesture underlining the health care, as opposed to law enforcement aspect of drug policy.

The new plan, as outlined on the White House website, focuses on four main themes: early prevention of drug use, increased access to treatment for those struggling with addiction, changes in policing, including the expanded use of drug courts, where non-violent offenders are routed to treatment centers instead of jails, and doing more to support recovering drug addicts.

The plan calls these tactics part of a “smart on crime” rather than “tough on crime” approach, and claims that “science demonstrates that addiction is a disease of the brain.” Based on this, it rejects old theories that drug abuse was merely a product of poor moral character and a lack of willpower. This is a clear repudiation of the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign of the 1980s, which assumed problematic drug use was a decision and not an affliction.

In an accompanying Huffington Post editorial, White House Office of National Drug Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske echoed this line of thinking:

“This 21st century drug policy outlines a series of evidence-based reforms that treat our nation's drug problem as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue. This policy underscores what we all know to be true: we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem.”

While the new plan represents a change of direction from previous approaches, its catch-all framework of addicts versus criminals doesn’t address America’s most widely used drug.

Marijuana is grouped alongside narcotics like cocaine and heroin in drug policy, but it is treated in civilian life—especially in certain parts of the country—as a milder substance similar to alcohol or tobacco. A Pew poll released earlier this month showed 52 percent of Americans supporting the legalization of marijuana.

Despite changing public sentiment, marijuana is still listed as a Schedule I narcotic according to the Controlled Substances Act, denoting that it has “no currently accepted medical use.” This classification has persisted even as 18 states and the District of Columbia have legalized its use explicitly for medical purposes.

Ever since Washington and Colorado voted last November to become the first two states to legalize marijuana for recreational use, observers had wondered how the federal government would react.

President Obama indicated last December that he would not be going after recreational smokers in states where voters had decided to permit it. However, marijuana remains illegal under federal law, which supersedes state-level legislation.

Wednesday’s announcement was a significant re-orientation away from certain failed drug warrior policies, but it did nothing to address the millions of non-drug addicted Americans who smoke marijuana and continue to remain in legal limbo.

Read more of Neon Tommy’s coverage of marijuana legalization here.

Reach Executive Producer Matt Pressberg



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