Huffpost Politics

Obama Drug Policy Focuses On Prevention, Treatment

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WASHINGTON — The White House is putting more resources into drug prevention and treatment, part of President Barack Obama's pledge to treat illegal drug use more as a public health issue than a criminal justice problem.

The new drug control strategy to be released Tuesday boosts community-based anti-drug programs, encourages health care providers to screen for drug problems before addiction sets in and expands treatment beyond specialty centers to mainstream health care facilities.

"It changes the whole discussion about ending the war on drugs and recognizes that we have a responsibility to reduce our own drug use in this country," Gil Kerlikowske, the White House drug czar, said in an interview.

The plan – the first drug plan unveiled by the Obama White House – calls for reducing the rate of youth drug use by 15 percent over the next five years and for similar reductions in chronic drug use, drug abuse deaths and drugged driving.

Kerlikowske criticized past drug strategies for measuring success by counting the number of children and teens who have not tried marijuana. At the same time, he said, the number of deaths from illegal and prescription drug overdoses was rising.

"Us facing that issue and dealing with it head on is important," Kerlikowske said.

The new drug plan encourages health care professionals to ask patients questions about drug use even during routine treatment so that early intervention is possible. It also helps more states set up electronic databases to identify doctors who are overprescribing addictive pain killers.

"Putting treatment into the primary health care discussion is critical," Kerlikowske said.

The policy shift comes in the wake of several other drug policy reforms since Obama took office. Obama signed a measure repealing a two-decade old ban on the use of federal money for needle-exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV. His administration also said it won't target medical marijuana patients or caregivers as long as they comply with state laws and aren't fronts for drug traffickers.

Earlier this year, Obama called on Congress to eliminate the disparity in sentencing that punishes crack crimes more heavily than those involving powder cocaine.

Some drug reform advocates like the direction Obama is heading, but question whether the administration's focus on treatment and prevention programs is more rhetoric than reality at this point. They point to the national drug control budget proposal released earlier this year, for example, which continues to spend about twice as much money on enforcement as it does on programs to reduce demand.

"The improved rhetoric is not matched by any fundamental shift in the budget or the broader thrust of the drug policy," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which favors drug policy reform.

Nadelmann praised some of Obama's changes, but said he is disappointed with the continued focus on arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating large numbers of people.

Kerlikowske rejected that as "inside the Beltway discussion," and said there are many programs that combine interdiction and prevention.

The drug control office's budget request does include a 13 percent increase in spending on alcohol and drug prevention programs, along with a 3.7 percent increase for addiction treatment.

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