News & Politics

Obama's Drug War Budget Looks a Lot Like Bush's

Obama has taken significant steps to treat drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue. But he's failed to change the drug war budget in a meaningful way.

President Obama’s newly released drug war budget is essentially the same as Bush’s, with roughly twice as much money going to the criminal justice system as to treatment and prevention. This despite Obama's statements on the campaign trail that drug use should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue. And despite his drug czar telling the Wall Street Journal last year the war on drugs should be ended.

While the president appears unwilling to change how taxpayer money is misspent, he can still seek reform. The White House’s forthcoming 2010 drug strategy is the best opportunity to do that. The administration has already directed federal law enforcement to stop arresting medical marijuana patients in states where medical marijuana is legal. The White House also worked with Congress to repeal the provision blocking states from using their share of prevention money on syringe exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. The administration has also urged Congress to repeal the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, a policy that creates enormous racial disparities and causes law enforcement agencies to waste resources on low-level offenders instead of dismantling violent crime syndicates.
 
These are all very good reforms and Obama deserves praise for championing them, but rolling back some of the most horrific excesses of the war on drugs is a far cry from actually ending the war on drugs. The Obama administration has yet to articulate even a crude vision of what it means to treat drug use as a health issue. Having failed miserably to change the drug war budget, the White House should use its forthcoming drug strategy to lay out a shift in U.S. drug policy.
 
First, the strategy should state the U.S. now takes an evidence-based approach to drug policy. Previous administrations showed time and time again they valued ideology and politics over science. The Bush administration, for instance, opposed not just making sterile syringes available to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS but also distributing naloxone to prevent fatal drug overdoses, despite overwhelming evidence that these policies save lives without increasing drug use. Obama’s drug strategy should embrace both policies and make clear his administration will go where the science and evidence leads.
 
Second, the strategy should seek to reduce not just drug use and the problems associated with drug use but also the damage being caused by punitive drug policies. This would be a stark departure from previous administrations that ignored rising prison populations, civil rights abuses, broken families, and other problems associated with drug law enforcement. Obama’s drug strategy should provide a thorough accounting of the negative consequences of the war on drugs and lay out a plan for reducing them.
 
Third, the strategy should reject the ridiculous fantasy of achieving a "drug-free" society. There has never been a drug-free nation and never will be. No matter how many "Just Say No" commercials are put on TV, a large number of Americans will say “yes.” President Obama said yes. So did Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and tens of millions of other Americans. The government’s own studies show that the millions spent on these ad campaigns were wasted and may have encouraged more drug use among young people. Obama’s drug strategy should admit this and include policies designed to keep those who use drugs as safe and healthy as possible.
 
Finally, the strategy should recognize that Washington doesn’t have all the answers. New Mexico and New York are moving toward a model public health approach to drugs. Texas is implementing new performance measures for drug law enforcement. Legislators from California to New Hampshire want to put drug traffickers out of business by taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol. Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and other cities have innovative harm reduction programs. Obama’s drug strategy should encourage states to try new approaches and urge policymakers to bring all options to the table.
 
President Obama spoke for millions of Americans when he said drug use should be treated as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue. To his credit he has taken significant steps in that direction during his first year.  He has failed, however, to change the drug war budget in a meaningful way. Hopefully his forthcoming drug strategy will lay out a new direction for U.S. drug policy.

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