60 Minutes Profile on the Drug Czar: What They Got Right -- and Wrong

12/14/2015 03:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017
Director of National Drug Control Policy Michael Botticelli takes part in a discussion on drug abuse at the East End Family R
Director of National Drug Control Policy Michael Botticelli takes part in a discussion on drug abuse at the East End Family Resource Center on October 21, 2015 in Charleston, West Virginia. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Last night, 60 Minutes tackled the drug war for a second week in a row when they did a nice profile on Michael Botticelli, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, commonly referred to as President Obama's Drug Czar.

Botticelli comes from a public health background and breaks the mold of past Drug Czars, who were all from the military and law enforcement. The Drug Czar is also the first to be open about his struggles with and recovery from problematic alcohol use.

Mr. Botticelli scored big with the profile and 60 Minutes fell short. 60 Minutes does a good job highlighting the positives about the drug czar, while it ignores his contradictions and some very harmful positions.

The piece starts off good, with Bottcelli acknowledging the drug war is a failure and that we need a new approach. Botticelli starts off on the right track: he says we can't incarcerate our way out of the problem and he wants to treat drug use as a health issue rather than as a criminal one.

60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley seems so impressed by the rhetoric that he fails to ask the appropriate follow up question -- why are we still arresting more than a million people simply for drug possession every year in the U.S.? Mr. Pelley could have also asked the Drug Czar if he supports ending the criminalization of drug use and possession, which Portugal did 14 years ago with incredible success. I would have liked to see if Botticelli would support a country that actually does treat drug use as a health issue.

60 Minutes also fails to take Botticelli to task for the fact that ONDCP's budget under President Obama still prioritizes enforcement, prosecution and incarceration at home, and interdiction, eradication and military escalation abroad. Even what the government does spend on treatment and prevention is overstated, as many of its programs are wasteful and counterproductive.

60 Minutes does give credit where credit is due and shows the Drug Czar's positive embrace of harm reduction policies. Botticelli supports increasing access to naloxone, the life-saving drug that reverses an overdose, as well as "911 Good Samaritan" laws that allow people to call 911 when witnessing an overdose without fear of being arrested. Although these two policies were long championed and implemented by activists and groups like the Drug Policy Alliance before the federal government took notice, the Drug Czar has been at least wise enough to give credit to these life-saving policies.

The Drug Czar also deserves praise for taking on the harmful role that stigma plays in marginalizing people who use drugs. His personal story is powerful and he seems sincere about humanizing and having compassion for people who struggle with addiction.

The big fail comes when he talks about the momentum to legalize marijuana. The Drug Czar says he is totally against legalizing marijuana because he doesn't want marijuana to join the ranks of some harmful legal drugs, namely alcohol and cigarettes. He also gives the standard "what about the kids" line when he states his opposition.

Again 60 Minutes gives him a pass and doesn't challenge his statements lumping marijuana in with drugs that cause hundreds of thousands of deaths a year. There was also no mention of the 600,000+ people arrested for marijuana possession in the U.S. every year. Or the fact that black and Latino people are arrested for drugs at wildly disproportionate rates, even though those groups use and sell drugs at similar rates as other people.

I appreciated this 60 Minutes profile and it felt like breaking new ground. But 60 Minutes dropped the ball by not challenging some of the feel-good rhetoric. While the Drug Czar claims we are moving away from the war on drugs, in reality the war continues to grind on. Just ask the million people arrested last year for drug possession.

Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)