Time to throw tomatoes?
In announcing the release of the proposed federal drug control budget for 2011, President Barack Obama's drug czar, former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, declared that the new budget "demonstrates the ... Administration's commitment to a balanced and comprehensive drug strategy." The budget is Obama's first with Kerlikowske at the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "In a time of tight budgets and fiscal restraint," continued Kerlikowske, "these new investments are targeted at reducing Americans' drug use and the substantial costs associated with the health and social consequences of drug abuse."
There was no waxing on unnecessarily about the scourge of any particular drug, a marked departure from the rhetoric of Kerlikowske's predecessor – George W. Bush's czar, John Walters – who talked on and on, ad nauseam, about the horrors of marijuana. The new czar's trumpeting of a "balanced" and "comprehensive" strategy for dealing with the nation's drug issues seemed a good sign, given Obama's campaign-trail promises – notably, that drug use should be viewed as a public health issue – and Kerlikowske's own comments last year, upon his nomination to the ONDCP seat, about "ending" the war on drugs (the government is not at war with its people, he said).
Unfortunately, looking at the meat of the budget recommendations, released in a 14-page document in February, it doesn't appear that much is balanced here – neither is there much to suggest that the promise of a new way of doing things has come to pass. Instead, the first Obama drug budget request under Kerlikowske looks amazingly like those of the past: Fully 64% of the budget is marked for supply reduction efforts (that is, for law enforcement and interdiction efforts), while just 36% is to be spent on demand reduction, including treatment and prevention. Meaning, in short, that tomorrow's drug war looks startlingly like the war waged under Bush and Walters.
That said, the $15.5 billion budget request does have its bright spots: Funding for treatment, while still a significantly smaller portion of the budget than reserved for law enforcement (which gets a modest boost in 2011), would increase by nearly 4% from last year's allocation and is up 9% from Bush's 2009 budget. And a significant amount of money has been slated to go to criminal justice programs, including drug courts, which have had great success across the country in getting people off drugs and out of jail (in many such programs, participants have had the charges against them dismissed, meaning that the collateral damage of a drug conviction can be avoided). Funding will also increase for other "alternatives to prison" initiatives, as well as re-entry programs to help those released from prison to successfully rejoin their communities.
Funding for those bright spots, however, still lags behind funding for the more "traditional" approach to drug control, which is interdiction efforts: The U.S. Coast Guard, for example, is slated to get a whopping $1.2 billion in funds in an attempt to deny "smugglers access to maritime routes." Similarly, a new allocation of $31.2 million will go to the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, which aims to keep drug-runners from using the islands to run their dope and launder their profits. In all, the combined efforts of law enforcement to stop the flow of drugs would be funded with nearly $10 billion – a 3.3% increase over Bush's last budget. In contrast, treatment efforts would see just $3.7 billion. This is disheartening to Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance Network. "Dollar for dollar, treatment and prevention are so much more effective than law enforcement and interdiction," he says, adding that the budget priorities set out in this funding request "make you wonder if they're really serious" about changing the nation's approach to drug policy.
Indeed, on that point the jury is still out. DPA Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann notes that there has been a distinct "shift in rhetoric, which is significant." Obama has made clear his support for funding needle exchange programs, which help reduce the spread of diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis; the Department of Justice has called for an end to the ubiquitous medi-pot raids of the Bush era (though, under the leadership of Drug Enforcement Administration head Michele Leonhart, a Bush holdover, the raids have continued, albeit less often); and "they're moving forward in good faith" to fix the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, which has wrought devastating discrimination in sentencing, mostly for low-level black offenders. "I'm not one of those people that thought things would change overnight when Obama came in. I understand how deeply embedded the drug war is," said Nadelmann. "I'm surprised by the progress in the first year. But when it comes to the big-picture stuff, they don't seem able" to articulate a new course.
Still, that may change – and soon, says Piper, when the ONDCP releases its annual drug control strategy, a big-picture document that should describe exactly where the feds are coming from. (The strategy should be released this month.) "The question is, what is going to be in the drug strategy, and will it articulate a new start? A new chapter?" he asks. Or will it be more of the same – using police power to try to stop drugs from coming into the country and punishing those who use drugs. Piper is hoping for a strategy that will articulate ways not only to reduce the harm associated with doing drugs but also the harm done by the war on drugs. "That would be something," he says. "If it is different, that will be encouraging. If not, then we should all throw tomatoes at them."