Mixed Reactions to Drug-Control Strategy

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Earlier this week the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy released the 2012 National Drug Control Strategy. The document is guided by the same principle as its 2011 strategy — that addiction is a disease to be treated — and thus encourages prevention, treatment and alternative drug courts instead of the mass incarceration that has come to define America's war on drugs.


Also similar to last year, the 2012 strategy recommends spending roughly equal amounts on treatment and prevention ($10.1 billion) and law enforcement and incarceration ($9.4 billion). It's an approach that, coupled with the fact that federal prosecutions for drug-related offenses have remained about the same under the Obama administration, has underwhelmed many drug-policy advocates.

Last fall I interviewed Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, about both sides of his strategy:

TR: Another part of your outreach involves the expansion of drug courts instead of focusing on incarceration. What kinds of gains is this yielding — are more of these popping up more around the country? It doesn't really seem that they are.

GK: In 22 years they've gone from one in Miami to about 2,600. So there's a pretty good growth, and I think what will spur the growth even further is this most recent piece of research by the Urban Institute. They compared sites over five years that had a drug court versus sites that did not, and they showed that the drug courts were not only cost-effective but reduced many of the problems associated with those offenders. So now you have the real hard data. For anybody that says, "Drug courts are soft on drugs and don't make a real difference," now you have a piece of really strong evaluative research that says they do make a difference.

TR: You, along with Attorney General Eric Holder, have encouraged states to evaluate mandatory minimum drug sentences — yet mandatory minimums still apply at the federal level. Even though the majority of prisoners are incarcerated at the state and local levels, can you get the ball rolling by ending mandatory minimums at least federally?

GK: The United States Sentencing Commission under Judge Patti Saris, and the Justice Department, are probably the best place to talk about that. That's a little far afield from my area. What we've tried to do is lay out a case about the importance of looking at addiction as a disease and public health issue. I think that's a good place for us to be.

Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief, also talked about his opposition to strict collateral consequences placed on people with past drug convictions, as well as the challenge of funding in-prison treatment services. Read the full interview here.

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.