Distorting Obama’s Record on Addiction Treatment

When a particular viewpoint becomes de rigueur among the chattering classes, journalists sometimes become lazy about subjecting that viewpoint to careful analysis. For example, the posh view now is that President Obama is an unreconstructed drug warrior who has thrown ever more people in prison and slashed health care for addicted Americans. Even though such assertions are refuted by readily obtainable data, the meme is so strong that many journalists repeat these falsehoods as if they were facts.

John McWhorter of the The New Republic is the latest offender. In the sort of “Obama = drug warrior = bad” article that appears at least once a week these days, he indicts the President for a lack of commitment to addiction treatment, noting that “funds for treatment under the Department of Education have been slashed a third“.

He could have gone further and stated that the Obama’s Department of Education has not budgeted even one penny for drug treatment!!!! Bad Obama Bad, you drug warrior you!!! But the rub is that the Department of Education has never funded drug treatment; health care funding comes through programs such as Medicare and Medicaid which are part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Attacking the President on the basis of the Department of Education’s lack of funding for drug treatment is no more reasonable that attacking him for the Department of Agriculture’s lack of funding for aircraft carriers.

In reality, the Affordable Care Act is the largest expansion of treatment for addicted people in at least 40 years, and perhaps in the history of the United States. These changes are augmented by new parity regulations for the insurance industry which require an increased investment of private dollars in addiction treatment. Neither of these policy changes is a secret: There are thousands of people in Washington alone who could have told McWhorter the facts if he had phoned them instead of phoning in his article. Indeed, even within the space of McWhorter’s own magazine is documentation that his claims about Obama’s addiction treatment policies are completely bogus.

I do not believe that McWhorter simply fabricated the accusation in his article. Perhaps it was handed to him by a fact-challenged drug policy advocacy group or by one of the Republican Presidential campaigns. But why did he uncritically pass it on, Breitbart-style, as if it were the truth? Most likely because it fits a narrative that is fashionable in the circles where reporters and pundits tread.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “Distorting Obama’s Record on Addiction Treatment”

  1. Are you sure that’s not just a brainfart on McWhorter’s part? Assuming for the sake of argument that it is, so disregarding how it’s channeled, what is the status of treatment funding in the latest budget?

  2. OK. Turns out it was a brainfart on McWhorter’s part. Right before the assertion on cutting treatment funding, he links to a LEAP report in the previous clause of the sentence. In that report, on page 7, you find the statement:
    If the president really thinks we need to move away from punitive, war-like approaches to the health issue of drug abuse, why, for example, did his first drug control budget with his new drug czar in place (FY 2011) include a 13% increase in anti-drug spending for the Department of Defense, an 18% increase in the Bureau of Prisons drug control funds and a 34% percent decrease in support for anti-drug programs under the Department of Education, as compared to President Bush’s budget from FY 2009?

    Those DoE programs are presumably anti-drug messaging and would fall under prevention and not treatment.

  3. Good specific amplification. But Keith’s argument is right on. ACA huge and hugely ignored by most drug policy folks.

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