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September 1, 2014, 7:38 am

U.S. taking baby steps in drug war

History has thrown America a thunderous combination when it comes to the “War on Drugs.” During the 1980s, crack cocaine invaded the African-American community, thereby creating a problem that still plagues many neighborhoods.

There was the creation of mandatory minimum prison sentences, which have driven criminal-justice statistics to an all-time high. And according to the Sentencing Project, drug offenders in state prisons have increased thirteen-fold since 1980, and currently account for half of the federal prison population. African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated for drug offenses, at a rate about 50 percent higher than that of whites.

Shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama vowed to usher in a new approach to fighting drugs; not only to address drug abuse, but incarceration, racial disparities and re-entry as well.

And Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, claims that over the past 2 1/2 years, the administration has indeed shifted the way the country handles addicts in the criminal justice system.

In 2004, President Obama himself called the fight against drugs an “utter failure.” And since he took office, the White House has quietly reduced funding for the international drug war while increasing funding for treatment and prevention at home. The changes in funding are baby steps when compared to the billions of dollars spent on the drug war every year, but for reformers who want to see less cartel violence and more drug offenders in treatment programs instead of jail cells, these baby steps are going in the right direction.

The president’s 2012 budget request for drug control tops out at $26 billion, a $322 million increase from the 2010 budget. Prevention, treatment and law enforcement all saw increases in funding, but $456 million in international drug war funding was cut as the administration continues to transition drug control responsibilities to the governments of drug producing countries like Mexico, Colombia and Afghanistan.

The administration wants to sink at least $2.1 billion into counter-narcotic operations in these and other countries in 2012, but four times more money would be spent on treating drug users at home. The State Department’s proposed 2013 budget includes a 10 percent decrease in military and police aid for Latin American and Caribbean countries.

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

“We have this program where they do voluntary testing in 10 different jails around the country in Chicago, Sacramento, Portland and others,” Kerlikowske said in an interview with “People coming into the jail system are asked a series of questions, they voluntarily submit a urine sample, and this program gives you an incredibly precise understanding of just what the level of drug involvement is with people who have been arrested. You have people arrested for all kinds of different crimes, but it’s very clear that there’s a drug nexus.”

The new drug control strategy, which was released last week, calls for a boost to 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,” Kerlikowske said in an interview with reporters.

The plan 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.

“Now, there are people who are arrested for drug crimes who are not addicts,” said Kerlikowske. “And there are people arrested for other crimes that have nothing to do with drugs, but really do have an addiction problem. So what we want to do is to make sure that at the state and local level, and then at the federal level, there is an ability to make an assessment of what the issues are with that individual. If addiction and drug dependence is a problem, then making sure that they get the treatment needed would be important.”

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 over-prescribing addictive painkillers.

“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. He recently 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.

The president has also called on Congress to eliminate the disparity in sentencing that punishes crack cocaine crimes more heavily than those involving powder cocaine.

Some drug reform advocates like the direction President 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 twice as much money on enforcement as it does on programs to reduce demand.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which favors drug policy reform, favors some of Obama’s changes, but said he is disappointed with the continued focus on arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating large numbers of people.

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.

Changes have included the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine; support for expanding drug courts instead of incarceration; and increased funding for state and local re-entry programs. On the other hand, federal prosecutions for drug-related offenses remain about the same, and funding to support the administration’s drug treatment efforts are substantially lacking.

“The improved rhetoric is not matched by any fundamental shift in the budget or the broader thrust of the drug policy,” said Nadelmann. and contributed to this report.

Zack Burgess is the enterprise writer for the Tribune. He is a freelance writer and editor who covers culture, politics and sports. He can be contacted at