Drug policies must be rooted in science

We agree with the Commission that balanced drug control efforts are necessary, which is why this administration’s National Drug Control Policy is a marked departure from past strategies. We support diverting non-violent offenders into treatment instead of jail by encouraging alternatives to incarceration. And as a former police chief, I and my colleagues know that we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem. As I’ve often stated before, drug use should be addressed as a public health problem because we know drug addiction is a disease that can be successfully prevented and treated. Legalizing illicit drugs increase drug use and the need for drug treatment, while also making it more difficult to keep our communities healthy and safe.

Our National Drug Control Strategy is science-based. And science shows that illegal drug use is associated with specialty treatment admissions, fatal drugged driving accidents, mental illness, and emergency room admissions. Illicit drug use has huge costs to our society, outside of just criminal justice costs.

A recent report by the Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center about the economic impact of illicit drug use indicates that the costs of illicit drug use on health care and productivity alone, are over $80 billion. Making illicit drugs legal would not reduce any of these factors. Nor is drug use a victimless crime. Just last month, during a visit to the Pediatric Interim Care Center in Kent, Washington, I saw firsthand the tragic impact drug use has on newborn babies.

In addition, despite the Commission’s assertions, efforts to reduce drug use over the last several decades have, in fact, achieved success. Overall drug use in the United States is half of what it was thirty years ago, cocaine production in Colombia has dropped by almost two-thirds, and the very same U.N. World Drug Report cited by the Commission concluded that, “Demand for cocaine in the U.S. has been in long-term decline."

This administration's efforts to reduce drug use are not born out of a culture war or drug war mentality, but rather out of the recognition that drug use strains our economy, public health, and public safety. The President's inaugural National Drug Control Strategy - released one year ago - focuses on both the public health and public safety aspects of drug use and addiction. It focuses on addiction as a disease and on the importance of preventing drug use, as well as providing treatment to those who need it, including those who are involved in the criminal justice system. For the first time, it emphasizes support for millions of individuals who are in recovery from drug addiction.

And the United States is not alone. Our international partners across the globe – including Mexico’s President Calderon, Colombia’s President Santos, and Costa Rica’s President Miranda – have all clearly stated their opposition to drug legalization

It is, of course, tempting to opt for seemingly easy answers to the world’s drug problems. They appear intractable at times. But we have made real progress and the steps we take in the future must be rooted in science and evidence-based policies that will make our communities healthier and safer. 

Gil Kerlikowske is the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

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