The Drug Czar's Office Is Taking Ideas From the Drug Policy Reform Movement

I manage the Drug Policy Alliance's social media, and when I see the Office of National Drug Control Policy (the drug czar's office) repeatedly using the #DrugPolicyReform hashtag it makes me wonder what they think "drug policy reform" really means. That's the phrase which explains what we in the drug policy reform movement base our work around -- changing the disastrous policies of the drug czar's office. So why are they using our language now and saying they need to reform themselves?

They know the war on drugs has failed, and that our movement is winning. When Gil Kerlikowske became drug czar in 2009 he said we needed to stop calling it a drug war, because he knew how much that was hurting their image. Now they say they favor a "public health model" that they call their "21st-century approach." That's a nice phrase that makes you think they're doing things differently, but they still believe in arresting people who use drugs. At the same time, the drug czar says we cannot arrest our way out of the "drug problem."

The level of hypocrisy is staggering. We don't have a drug problem. We have a drug policy problem.

Overall rates of drug use and availability have hardly changed over the last 30 years, yet every year ONDCP still makes a case for needing more money to combat drugs and drug use. The drug czar's office just released their 2015 budget and they asked for more money again. ONDCP is trying to say they spend more money on treatment than anything else, but if you look at all the money they're spending (including prevention and treatment; domestic law enforcement; interdiction; and international efforts, p.2 of the 2015 budget) they're spending much less on treatment and education than these classic quintessential drug war tactics. An additional $25 billion is spent at the state and local levels on the drug war every year. It's the same approach as the last 40+ years. And if they admit that has failed, their policies need to match the rhetoric.

A lot of what they are saying now is parroted from the work people have been doing for decades. They are trying to own the phrase "drug policy reform," meanwhile the Drug Policy Alliance has been hosting the International Drug Policy Reform Conference since 2001. Harm reduction advocates have been calling for syringe access, wider access to naloxone and 911 Good Samaritan laws for years, and the drug czar's office published a blog recently about overdose prevention that almost looked like it could've been written by the Drug Policy Alliance.

While it is truly great to see ONDCP trying to help prevent overdoses, they're still missing the big picture -- the criminalization of drug use is what's predominantly driving the harms associated with drug use. Unless we stop arresting people for simply using or possessing drugs, we will continue to have the same problems -- a bloated and powerful prison industrial complex, a rising overdose crisis, and everything else associated with prohibition and the underground market.

Gil Kerlikowske was just confirmed as the new Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and now Michael Botticelli is the acting director of ONDCP. Mr. Botticelli comes from a public health background, so having not come from a law enforcement background, maybe things can begin to change if he is able to stay in this position.

Derek Rosenfeld is an Internet Communications Coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.