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The Drug Czar Talks About Public Health, But Still Wants to Arrest People for Drugs

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The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) released its 2014 National Drug Control Strategy Wednesday. The strategy has shifted some from previous years in that it more clearly focuses on reducing the harms associated with substance misuse, such as overdose and the transmission of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other infectious diseases, while also reducing the harms associated with punitive drug policies, such as reducing the use of mandatory minimum sentencing.

The administration's rhetoric has evolved over the last couple of years -- reflecting the fact that three-quarters of Americans consider the drug war a failure -- emphasizing the need to treat drug misuse as a health issue and stop relying on the criminal justice system to deal with the problem.

The strategy, however, calls for the expansion of drug courts, which continue to treat drug users in the criminal justice system, where punishment is often the response to addiction-related behaviors such as positive urine screens or missed appointments. It discourages the use of words like "addict" and "substance abuser," noting that such stigmatizing words may make people less willing to seek treatment, but continues to embrace arresting and criminalizing people who use drugs despite evidence that fear of arrest is a major reason why people with substance misuse disorders don't seek help. It also ignores the fact that most people who use marijuana or other drugs don't have a problem and don't need treatment.

There are a number of areas, however, where the strategy takes important steps in the right direction including advocating for greater access to naloxone, a low-cost opiate antidote that reverses the effects of an opiate overdose; endorsing state 911 Good Samaritan laws which provide immunity from arrests to people who call 911 to help someone who is overdosing; strongly supporting the expansion of syringe exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other infectious diseases; and acknowledging that the U.S. has the largest per capita prison population in the world, which is costly in both money and societal impact. In particular, the strategy notes that the agency will be setting 5-year goals for reducing overdose fatalities, a goal that drug policy reformers had been seeking.

But simply expanding public health interventions is not enough given that this administration's drug policies remain focused on punitive approaches -- including arresting more than 750,000 Americans annually for low-level marijuana possession and refusing to recognize the medical value of marijuana. Every independent commission to examine marijuana policy has concluded that its harms have been greatly exaggerated -- including the 1944 LaGuardia Report, President Nixon's 1972 Schaffer Commission report, and the 1999 Institute of Medicine report commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

So far, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use. And 17 states have decriminalized marijuana, and voters in two states -- Washington and Colorado -- regulate marijuana like alcohol. Polling shows that a majority of Americans support legalization of marijuana and believe the federal government should not enforce federal laws in states where it is legal.

Sadly, the administration continues to keep its head in the sand when it comes to the massive number of arrests each year for marijuana and other drugs. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are being arrested each year for nothing more than possession. Once arrested they can be discriminated against in employment and housing for life. The administration can't ignore the destructive impact of mass arrests forever.

Bill Piper is the director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.

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