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White House Drug Policy Shifts Strategy

By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, April 17 (HealthDay News) -- The Obama Administration has chosen the middle ground with its new drug control policy, advocating treatment over tough sentencing.

The approach, unveiled Tuesday, rejects both the harsh "war on drugs" approach, characterized by maximum sentences for drug offenses, and the push to legalize illegal drugs.

Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said during a news conference Tuesday that both approaches were "not humane or realistic, and not grounded in scientific evidence."

Instead, he said, the new blueprint calls for more community programs along with changes to the probation-and-parole system that would send non-violent offenders to substance abuse treatment.

"This is nothing short of a revolution in how we approach drug abuse," Kerlikowske said.

Although overall drug use is down in the United States, more Americans than ever are dying from drug-induced death, even more than from gunshot wounds, said Kerlikowske.

At the same time, more than 7 million people are under the supervision of the criminal justice system, either incarcerated or on probation or parole. Many have drug offenses, he noted.

"This underscores the need for different approaches for drug control, one that treats drug addiction as a disease, in which drug-related crime is addressed in a fair and equitable manner," Kerlikowske said. "We can't arrest our way out of the drug problem."

With that in mind, the new policy embraces three concepts, according to Kerlikowske's office: addiction is a disease that can be treated; people with substance use disorders can recover; and criminal justice reforms can stop the revolving door of drug use, crime, incarceration and re-arrest.

The new strategy builds on previous Obama Administration innovations, such as the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which rolled back a mandatory 100-to-1 minimum sentence disparity between powder and crack cocaine, put non-violent offenders into treatment via drug court and emphasized prevention, Kerlikowske said.

The new plan outlines more than 100 specific actions involving screening, brief interventions and referral to treatment and the Affordable Care Act, "which will make drug treatment a required benefit from all that suffer from substance abuse," Kerlikowske noted.

Much of the new plan centered on new strategies for dealing with parole and probation violations related to drug use.

Currently, people on probation and parole have 16 or 17 violations before they receive sanctions, said Angela Hawken, an associate professor of economics and policy analysis at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy in Los Angeles.

A new program in Hawaii has shown success in arresting parole violators immediately and sentencing them to short periods of jail time followed by mandatory drug testing, the officials noted.

"Drug use is down 80 to 90 percent over baseline, arrests are down and there is a large reduction in costly probation revocations," Hawken said.

The new administration plan also emphasizes community-based programs, such as drug-free communities and youth campaigns.

"Our goal is to reform the public health system so we can learn to recognize the signs of drug addiction and intervene appropriately before the justice system becomes involved," Kerlikowske said. "There's a real reason to be optimistic with these reform efforts."

More information

Visit the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy for more on the new strategy.

SOURCES: April 17, 2012 press conference with: Gil Kerlikowske, director, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and Angela Hawken, Ph.D., associate professor, economics and policy analysis, School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University, Los Angeles

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