Toward a Public Health Approach to Drug Policy
Advance: The Journal of the American Constitution Society Issue Groups, Vol. 3, No. 1, p. 43, 2009
14 Pages Posted: 12 Sep 2009 Last revised: 10 Dec 2009
Date Written: September 12, 2009
On March 11, 2009, President Barack Obama announced that Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske will be the next director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (also known as the "Drug Czar"). Chief Kerlikowske's nomination comes as we approach the 40th anniversary of the so-called "war on drugs," which followed the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970.
This essay argues that after nearly 40 years, "it is becoming increasingly clear that our current drug control strategy has not worked." It reaches this conclusion after discussing a variety of studies and surveys that detail the amount of money that has been spent by the United States as part of this "war," and the results with regard to drug use in general, use of drugs by young people, and the ease of obtaining drugs, particularly in comparison to other countries that have used different approaches to addressing these issues. It also discusses the significant impact that U.S. drug policy has had on the size and composition of our prison population.
The essay calls on the President and the new Drug Czar to change the focus of our nation's drug policy from a punitive approach to one that addresses the problem through the lens of public health. The essay discusses recent surveys and election results and sees an opportunity for politicians to seek fundamental change in our approach to combating drug use. The views of American voters are changing, and they are now more open to reform than they were in the 1980s and 1990s.
The essay acknowledges that "[t]here is no magic bullet that can solve the problem of substance abuse." Nevertheless, it contends that "[t]here are ... a number of readily identifiable reforms that can help begin to set us on the right track and build a foundation for more significant improvements in the future." In particular, it suggests shifting funding from programs that have unsuccessfully focused on limiting the supply of drugs to programs that have proven successful at reducing demand. It also proposes removing provisions in federal law that are hampering the government's ability to pursue effective programs. The essay concludes by advocating the creation of a commission to conduct a comprehensive reevaluation of U.S. drug policy in light of what we have learned from other countries and from four decades of our own experience with the current approach.
Keywords: drug policy, drug laws, drug offenses, drug abuse, drug control, criminal law, incarceration, narcotics
JEL Classification: K14, K32, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation