The Obama drug strategy

Perfect? No. But way better than any of its predecessors.

Some jerk [Update*: to be precise, John Walters, see below] leaked the as-yet-unpublished drug strategy to Michael Isikoff of Newsweek. Given the nasty tone of Isikoff’s story, presumably the jerk was hostile to the Administration: probably one of the holdover drug warriors still at ONDCP (the drug czar’s office).

Isikoff, who knows better (he covered the drug beat in the 1980s), focuses on gossip and on the largely meaningless ratio of “supply control” to “demand control” spending, while missing all the important innovations. To Isikoff, the fact that Bill Bennett and Barry McCaffrey were “formidable figures” counts for everything; that they were “formidable” mostly in reasserting drug-war pieties, while the less telegenic, “barely on the public radar” Kerlikowske managed to produce a strategy containing some actual strategic insight, counts for nothing.

The new strategy can’t completely avoid the trap of bowing in the direction of existing programs to get past agency review, and it has its share of pointless quantitative goals (some of them mandated by law). For example, there’s no reason to think that the federal government has the capacity to reduce the prevalence of drug use by 15%, or that raising the fraction of drugs seized on their way to the U.S. is either feasible or useful. The strategy insists, at least rhetorically, that something called “drug use” is the central problem (where “drug” does not include alcohol, and use is not distinguished from abuse or dependence), and that the goal of enforcement ought to be to reduce drug use by reducing drug availability rather than to protect public safety and order from the side-effects of drug dealing. (Reducing homicides related to drug dealing is not an explicit goal.)

But the strategy offers a fairly impressive list of innovations to set off against those disappointments. Of course the ones that matter most to me testing-and-sanctions programs for drug-involved offenders (which the “formidable” Bennett and McCaffrey never dared to endorse) and David Kennedy’s Drug Market Intervention program designed to eliminate problematic drug markets without mass arrests. Together, those two programs alone would radically reduce the links between drugs and crime, and yet because they’re neither “supply” or “demand” programs and have no visceral appeal to either side of the culture wars, they’ve struggled to get attention.

Rather than just promising to pump more money into the existing drug-treatment machinery, the strategy focuses on on the contribution the mainstream health-care effort could make toward dealing with substance abuse, in particular screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment (SBIRT). The money potentially available for his purpose under the health care bill, and in particular through the community clinic system, dwarfs the formal treatment system. The strategy aims to make sure that potential gets used; if it does, the effective balance between “supply” and “demand” spending would shift radically in fact, though it wouldn’t change on paper.

Some of the innovations don’t leap off the page, but require a little bit of reading between the lines; they’re important nonetheless.

= “Provide information one effective prevention strategies to law enforcement” seems anodyne until you think about it. Right now, law enforcement is heavily invested in a single, ineffective prevention strategy: DARE, one of the sacred cows of drug abuse control. The implication is that the Feds are going to tell law enforcement agencies with information on programs that actually work.

= “Celebrate and support recovery from addiction” also sounds like an endorsement of motherhood and apple pie, until you scroll down and see “Review laws and regulations that impede recovery,” which turns out to mean getting rid of all the mean-spirited laws that deny driver’s licenses, housing, and student loans to people with drug convictions.

= “Prevention-prepared communities” turns out to mean replacing the plethora of boutique “prevention” programs aimed at specific behaviors such as drug-taking with generic programs aimed at addressing the community and personal roots of foolish and anti-social behavior. (For example, a classroom-discipline exercise called the Good Behavior Game, which never mentions drugs, is more effective at preventing early initiation of drug use than any drug-focused program.)

The culture warriors didn’t lose everything – drugged driving is still in there – but they lost a lot. AIDS prevention is now a top-line goal, with needle exchange endorsed as a means of pursuing it. Distribution of naloxone to prevent overdose deaths also gets an endorsement. So does reducing needless incarceration via diversion and re-entry programs and readjusting some parts of drug sentencing (e.g., the crack/powder disparity). The strategy explicitly mentions the flow of guns from the U.S. to violent Mexican drug traffickers.

There’s also a bunch of good, wonky stuff, such as addressing the mess that is the current drug data collection process.

Is this the strategy that I would have written? Not by a long shot. But is it the best strategy produced since the process started in 1989? Incomparably. It deserved better treatment than Newsweek chose to give it. What it shows is a White House that has gotten over the “drug war” and is ready to think about managing the drug problem.

* Update On p. 9 of the .pdf version a “track changes” box records a formatting change by Bush II drug czar John Walters. Now, that doesn’t quite prove that Walters gave the document to Isikoff in order to make life harder for his successor, though that would be perfectly consistent with Walters’s lifetime commitment to partisanship over policy or comity. Perhaps Walters gave it to someone else who gave it to Isikoff. But Walters was clearly somewhere in the chain.

That leaves the question of who gave the document to Walters; a phone call to ONDCP confirms that Walters himself did not have authorized access. (It was being pretty closely held; none of the drug policy people I know, several of whom were invited to contribute ideas as the process rolled forward, had seen it. I’d asked to see it and been refused.) But apparently the document was on the ONDCP intranet, available to any ONDCP staffer. That would include David Murray, a Walters loyalist and drug-war thought policeman bounced by Kerlikowske from his position as Chief Scientist and now squatting in his civil service job collecting a big paycheck for doing not much of anything. Murray isn’t the only person still at ONDCP who is friendly to Walters, but if anyone bothers to start a leak inquiry Murray would be a good person to talk to.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

12 thoughts on “The Obama drug strategy”

  1. Mark, it's tangential to your point I know but I'm stunned to learn that expect some level of competence and balance in the "work" of Michael Isikoff.

    To me that's like expecting some level of competence and balance in the "work" of his old colleague "Judge" Starr.

  2. Stuff like this reminds me why I voted for the guy. Good.

    How much of drug policy reform needs to be approved by Congress? Will they touch it in an election year?

  3. Isikoff hasn't yet figured out that Obama doesn't care about getting credit for every good idea. It's possible, likely even, that the reason there hasn't been a big to do about the changes in drug policy isn't because Obama doesn't think that drug policy is important, it's that if you make a big deal of it, it will encourage opponents to fight it, which might result in delays and/or cutbacks.

    Obama cares about good policy. If good policy can be implemented without making a big deal out of it, so be it.

  4. One thing Mark implies (but glosses) is that DARE doesn't work. This is pretty well known in the CJ and Soc communities, but not so much outside those communities.

  5. Another possible source for the leak could be Kevin Sabet. One of the youngest members of the ONDCP staff, Sabet has been a long time drug warrior and is now a senior aide and apparent confidante of Gil Kerlikowske. While many of the new people at ONDCP seem open to a non-ideologically driven approach to drug policy, there are more than a few holdovers like Sabet and June Savilli who care more about being right than doing the right thing when it comes to effective drug control policy. Hopefully, the Obama administration will get wise and clean house before its attempts at redirecting US drug policy are hopelessly compromised and rendered ineffectual.

  6. It's ridiculous to think that one of the strategy's primary authors, Kevin Sabet, would have leaked the document.As sad as it may sound, Kevin is unflinchingly loyal to ONDCP and I doubt he'd betray an office he holds in such high esteem.

    Although I disagree with Kevin on medical marijuana, and I think ONDCP wastes most of its dollars (since physicians should be able to prescribe whatever they think could benefit their individual patients), Sabet is far from a drug warrior in the do-anything-but-tell-the-truth sense of a guy like David Murray. (I don't know June Sivili so can't comment there). I've seen him debate and he is actually pretty reasonable. I also would not call him a "holdover" since he left ONDCP in 2004, apparently unpleased with the Walters-Murray fascismo of the time. My money is on Walters–he's mad tha Kerlikowske isn't living and breathing student drug testing.

  7. And while we're at it, a quick google search shows that its June "Sivilli," not "Savalli" or "Sivili" as stated by the above posters.

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