Gil Kerlikowske, the president's new head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, scored big points when he told the Wall Street Journal he wants to put an end to the "war on drugs." Which he daringly described as a war on people.
Of course, banishing a phrase amounts to a hollow gesture if it's not backed by deeds. President Truman insisted on calling the military conflict in Korea a "police action" but I'm guessing it felt pretty much like war to its casualties and survivors.
So, in retiring the phrase from the federal lexicon will we really be ending the "War on Drugs"? Hardly. We can reasonably expect in the face of Kerlikowske's pronouncement, an expression of shock and a circling of the wagons from key institutional forces, from frontline drug warriors to profiteering drug traffickers; from well-meaning but naïve PTAs to patronizing, fear-mongering politicians; from Big Pharma to the prison industrial complex. There's just too much at stake, financially and ideologically, to end this remarkably divisive and durable war.
Is the Obama administration serious about implementing drug policy reform? We all know the significance of a presidential budget. It's essentially dollars and cents representing policies and priorities. What does the administration's "National Drug Control Budget" tell us about the Obama approach to drug issues?
In the 2010 budget, prevention takes a 10.6 percent hit while domestic law enforcement gets a boost of 2.3 percent, with "interdiction" (military and police actions designed to stem the flow of drugs into and about the country) gaining 4.4 percent. On the positive side of the ledger, treatment shows a 4.4 percent increase. And what of the never-ending seesaw battle between supply and demand initiatives? Unfortunately, demand reduction efforts (education, prevention) are down 0.8 percent, while (generally futile) supply reduction initiatives (enforcement, burning or poisoning crops) gets a 2.7 percent bump.
Still, it's way too early to dismiss the Obama/Biden/Kerlikowske approach as just so much smoke and mirrors. The country is a-rumble with signs of change. In his confirmation hearing, Kerlikowske came out in strong support of needle exchange programs as part of an overall public health approach, a position he affirmed in the WSJ interview. The new government's putative hands-off policy on DEA raids on medical marijuana dispensaries is most encouraging, especially in light of the Bush administration's punitive, heavy-handed tactics. And there's been an early, unmistakable shift in rhetoric from an enforcement orientation to one favoring treatment of drug offenders.
Drug policy reformers of every stripe are abuzz. They recognize, after lo these many decades that agitation for reform is multiplying exponentially at both the state and federal levels. The prospect of real change is palpable.
Which means the many and varied special-interest proponents of the drug war (which has been very, very good to them) will fortify their positions, enrich their treasuries, and emit a sustained howl of protest.
Which means this is precisely the time that reform activists must step up the pace, adding fresh energy, dollars, and creativity to the campaign for sane and humane drug laws.