I’m not buying the line that Gil Kerlikowske, the nation’s new drug czar, is banishing the concept of a “war on drugs” and shifting to treatment over jail. Kerlikowske told the WSJ, "We're not at war with people in this country." But he can't really expect us—given the track record over the last few months—to believe him.
Kerlikowske is hardly, as many have interpreted his comments, ending the drug war; he's trying to rebrand the name. He knows damn well that the drug war is one of America’s most ineffective, unpopular policies. “Three in four likely voters (76%) believe the U.S. war on drugs is failing, a sentiment that cuts across the political spectrum,” Zogby reported last October. Which is why Kerkikowske would like everyone to pleeeeeease stop associating him with it, okay?
Sorry, Gil. That’s real nice and all. But we've also heard talk of treatment and compassion from Bush’s hardline drug czar, John Walters. “Referral to treatment is good news and precisely what we are trying to do to break the cycle of addiction and self-destruction,” he wrote in a White House forum in December. And he continued the same line an op-ed in the WSJ: “Prevention and treatment have been producing steady results." While Walters said these things throughout his tenure, drug arrests skyrocketed, funding for drug treatment lacked, and infectious disease rampaged the poor addicted population who couldn’t afford clean needles.
So these sorts of proclamations are nothing new, and they provide zero indication that the Obama Administration is making good on its promises to reversed draconian Bush-era drug policy.
This far under Obama’s watch, we’ve heard only vacuous words: Eric Holder announced the feds would stop raids on medical cannabis dispensaries; then, bam, the DEA raided another one. Right after Obama’s website ballyhooed a promise to restore funding for needle exchange, reducing the spread of HIV and Hep C, Obama submitted a budget that continued the 1980s ban on funding needle exchange. Further proof is in the prisons. According to an estimated tally of drug enforcement, 687,065 people have been busted on drug law violations this year—putting us on track to continue to surpass past drug-arrest records (at a rate that outpaces US population growth).
Seriously, Gil, as long as it looks like the "war on drugs"—letting people die because we have a backward, paternalistic approach to drugs—folks will continue to believe the government is "at war with people in this country."
I’ll believe Kerlikowske and Obama’s talk about ending the drug war when, unlike under Bush, it’s more than just talk. When the federal government begins: Funding needle exchange, halting armed raids on sick people who smoke pot, running ads that actually reduce teen drug use instead of tempting them with forbidden fruit, halting random student drug testing, and funding drug treatment so the waiting lists don’t run weeks or months and treatment is free. None of those tactics require easing drug laws, mind you; Kerlikowske doesn’t have to take a mushy stance on drugs or try to legalize them (which, realistically, will happen at the state level first, and I think Kerlikowske will take a hands-off approach); they only have to push the widely supported policies that save lives, reduce drug abuse, and cut the prison population, which most Americans already support. For example, as Medical News Today reported in March, three-quarters of Americans favor drug treatment for addicts.
Obama and a Kerlikowske will get around to this stuff, eventually—when it's safe. Gay civil rights, drug law reform, and a cadre of pressing but mildly controversial issues will take a backseat until after the midterm elections. But until then, it’s just talk.