New Obama Strategy Treats ‘War’ on Drugs as Public Health Issue

President Barack Obama’s plan to fight drug abuse and trafficking proposes spending $15.5 billion next year and shifting the emphasis from fighting a war on drugs to treating the problem as a national health issue, the administration’s top drug-policy adviser said in an interview.

“It’s a disease, it’s diagnosable and it’s certainly something that can be treated -- but it’s not a war,” said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The president’s plan calls for increasing drug-control spending by 3.5 percent in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. It aims to reduce drug use among American youth by 15 percent over five years, and to make similar reductions in chronic drug use, deaths from drug use, and driving under the influence of illicit substances.

“I am confident that when we take the steps outlined in this strategy, we will make our country stronger and our people healthier and safer,” Obama said in a statement that accompanied the report.

The administration’s plan would try to break the cycle that leads from drug use to crime, prison and renewed narcotics abuse, by combining support for police clampdowns on dealers with alternative sentencing for users and mandatory rehabilitation and counseling programs for those convicted of drug-related crimes, according to the report.

Prevention Efforts

“The people I’ve talked to as a police chief in law enforcement are incredibly supportive of not wanting to cycle people through the system,” said Kerlikowske, the former police chief in Seattle and Buffalo, New York.

The administration proposes spending $1.7 billion, up 13.4 percent from this year, to increase prevention efforts, including mentoring programs for schoolchildren.

“If you start early” presenting children with drug-prevention messages, “that’s been proven to be effective, and that’s where we want to go with this,” Kerlikowske said.

An increase of 3.7 percent in treatment funds, to $3.9 billion, includes a new emphasis on training primary care physicians to identify and help treat addiction before it becomes chronic. The funding request is part of Obama’s proposed fiscal 2011 budget.

“If you are able to do an intervention with somebody on drugs early, it saves money -- treatment is about half the cost of incarceration,” said Kerlikowske. “You can’t arrest your way out of the problem.”

Southwest Border

Spending on domestic law enforcement would increase 1.9 percent to $3.9 billion under the plan, with $579 million going to the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, which focuses on trafficking in the U.S. Southwest.

Among law enforcement targets will be Indian reservations along the Mexican and Canadian borders, where tons of highly potent marijuana and thousands of tablets of ecstasy pass easily, according to the report. More money will be available for law enforcement on tribal lands and for treatment and prevention programs for American Indians.

Support for stopping the flow of drugs into the U.S. would increase 2.4 percent to $3.7 billion, and assistance to international anti-drug programs would grow about 1 percent to $2.3 billion, according to the report.

Setting targets to reduce the use of illegal drugs in the U.S. should encourage more cooperation from law enforcement agencies in drug-producing countries, Kerlikowske said.

“I’d like to see that the general public recognizes addiction is a disease, that we all have to work collaboratively -- whether it’s law enforcement, treatment and prevention, or community groups -- rather than working in silos,” he said.

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