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The Golden Mean of Drug Policy?

The US drug czar claims his government is paving the way to a progressive, innovative and science-based drug policy – watch our video featuring his speech and read our blog!


Mr. Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), or as he is generally called, the “Drug Czar”, is the official voice of President Obama on drug issues. He is not a drug warrior: as Seattle police chief, he considered marijuana possession to be a low law-enforcement priority, and as drug czar he signaled that the Obama Administration would no longer use the term "War on Drugs", because it is a war on people. He favours a medicalization approach instead and has embraced the disease concept of addiction. In his speech at the drug policy pre-conference in Washington DC on July 20 (featured in our video below), he was trying to outline a golden mean of drug policy, the “21st century approach to drug policy”, that is “progressive, innovative and science based”, and that sets the balance between the war on drugs and legalization.

I think Kerlikowske is right to reject the black and white fallacy of legalization vs. prohibition. Many people in the drug policy reform movement agree. However, from my European perspective at least, the approach of the Obama adminstration is far from progressive, innovative and science-based – I would rather dub it a cowardly and inconsistent drug policy.

Firstly, the medicalization approach is not progressive – it is just as outdated as the criminalization approach: many studies show us that the medicalization of a problem fuels stigma and discrimination as much as criminalization itself. Not to mention that treatment does not provide an answer for those millions of Americans who use illegal substances in moderation and depend on a black market.

Second, how can we speak about innovation, if the government rejects harm reduction, the most innovative and pragmatic approach to drug policy? For the US government, even the term 'harm reduction' is taboo. Kerlikowske emphasizes that his government supports needle and syringe programs, but verbal support means nothing after Congress reinstated the ban on the federal funding of needle and syringe programs.

Third, it is very dubious to speak about a science-based approach if the law orders the drug czar to oppose not only legalization but decriminalizaton as well – that is, to reject any alternative to zero-tolerance. This is dogma, not science. A science-based approach would rather require the government to undertake a transparent evaluation of its current drug policy and explore alternative regulatory options as well. And if not at the federal level, at least at state level, it should allow room for experimentation and stop federal prosecutors blocking the introduction of any innovative legislation.

Posted by Peter Sarosi

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