Obama seeks new approach to the war on drugs

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Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), said there’s no easy answer to the nation’s drug problems.

"If there's a short bumper sticker answer to the really complex problem that our country faces on drugs, you can be assured by one thing: that it is wrong," Kerlikowske said at an event unveiling the annual blueprint. "We're not going to solve it by drug legalization and we're not, in my career, going to solve it by arresting our way out of it either."

The release of the strategy comes as the federal government wrestles with recently approved policies in Washington state and Colorado that legalize the use of marijuana. In November, voters in those states approved ballot measures that allowed recreational use of the drug, putting the states at odds with federal law.

The Department of Justice is weighing its legal response to the state laws, but the White House's drug czar maintained on Wednesday that they would not affect his office.

"From our standpoint as a public health issue, nothing has changed as a result of those votes," said Kerlikowske.

Marijuana legalization groups think the White House is lagging behind public opinion. "Unlike the unelected folks over at the ONDCP, elected officials around the country and certainly in Congress now see that big public opinion change," said Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

The Pew Research Center found this month that, for the first time in more than four decades of polling, a majority of Americans believe that use of marijuana should be legal. The research firm also found that 48 percent of adults said they have tried marijuana, an increase from previous years.

This month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a measure in the House of Representatives to protect marijuana users in Colorado and Washington stare from federal law.

The ONDCP's charter, however, specifically asserts that the director of national drug policy must "take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance" that has been classified as a Schedule I drug, like marijuana.

Marijuana advocates say that means that the office is legally obligated to oppose legalization, even when it is at odds with the public opinion.

"One can appreciate that they have a want to maintain the status quo, but thankfully for voters and democracy, the will of the voters is starting to prevail, as it should," said St. Pierre. "One can appreciate their sort of narrow viewpoint, but at the same time recognize that it's disconnected to public opinion."

The strategy, purposefully unveiled on the campus of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to highlight the administration's prioritization of health science, was termed by Kerlikowske an "innovative alternative to the war on drugs."

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the federal research institution the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said that the administration is aiming to avoid "misconceptions that the use of drugs is basically a voluntary behavior that connotes a moral failure."

The strategy contains more than 100 actions for the government to take to reduce drug use and aims to strengthen community-based drug prevention efforts, empower healthcare workers to detect early signs of abuse and expand access, and reduce the stigma of drug treatment.

It directs federal agencies to take advantage of expanded health insurance under the Affordable Care Act to bring addiction treatment to more people and aims to expand treatment for prison inmates and traditionally unmet populations, including veterans, college students and Native Americans. 

“We’re very pleased to see that the National Drug Control Strategy is a balanced and public health-based approach that includes prevention, treatment, recovery and alternatives to incarceration," said Arthur Dean, chairman and chief executive of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), in a statement to The Hill.

"As the membership organization of more than 5,000 community-based coalitions around the world, CADCA was also thrilled to see that the Strategy acknowledged the effectiveness of the community-based coalition approach through the Drug Free Communities program, which is touted as one of the major pillars of the Strategy."

"The President’s Strategy puts in place an approach which acknowledges that we cannot incarcerate our way out of the drug problem and that we have an obligation to expand ‘smart on crime’ approaches that place individuals, their welfare and dignity, at the center of drug policy in America,” added Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, in a statement released by the White House. 

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