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Jonathan Green | Drug Justice

The Drug Czar’s quackery

Published: Monday, April 29, 2013

Updated: Monday, April 29, 2013 01:04


Last Wednesday, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) released its annual report. Its rhetoric is convincing. The report admits that addiction is a disease of the brain — “a disease that can be prevented and treated.” In accord, Gil Kerlikowske, the office’s director (“Drug Czar”), has been adamant that “drug policy should be a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue.” But there is an inherent contradiction: Drug policy, if it’s informed by compassion for addicts, cannot be a criminal justice issue at all. 

The report claims the noble goal of rehabilitating drug addicts. In the strategy, the Obama administration recognizes one of the saddest realities of prohibition: that recovering addicts “face barriers to maintaining their sobriety, including a lack of access to housing, employment or even getting a driver’s license or student loan.” The strategy lists long-overdue reforms that are intended to fight that brutal reality, but I fear that they’ll make little difference to the millions of Americans who’ve been entangled in the criminal justice system for nonviolent drug offenses. Many offenders are permanently branded as felons, and it is that inescapable legal status, enforced by the ubiquity of checking the prior-conviction box, that prevents access to public resources, money and employment and ultimately lands so many offenders back behind bars. Unless there is widespread legal reform, drug addicts will continue to be demeaned as felons.

The ONDCP’s report promises the expansion of drug courts. America’s roughly 2,700 drug courts theoretically divert would-be prisoners to rehab. But the courts often require defendants to plead guilty in order to participate, meaning many defendants surrender their trial rights. Addiction is an uphill battle, and relapse is common, especially in the absence of adequate treatment. Drug court participants undergo frequent, mandatory drug tests, and addicts that relapse pee themselves a one-way ticket to an orange jumpsuit. The public health issue of drug use shouldn’t be an arrestable offense, and drug addicts, like other ill people, don’t belong in any sort of court — or prison. 

A progressive drug policy should recognize that we, as humans, sometimes have an inclination to escape sobriety and to explore our minds and should ensure that Americans are able to do so in a safe manner. Voters in Colorado and Washington recognized that the cost of enforcing cannabis prohibition, in the face of the overwhelming popularity of that plant’s mild narcotic effects, were way too high. The Obama administration should at least allow those states to improve public health and safety by implementing their measures. But U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has yet to announce how the Department of Justice will react to state-level cannabis legalization, and Drug Czar Kerlikowske maintains that “using marijuana has public health consequences, and the most responsible public policy is one that restricts its availability and discourages its use.” 

In continuing to ignore the legal reforms out west, the Drug Czar and the president are signaling that they will continue to arrest roughly 750,000 otherwise-innocent cannabis consumers yearly, casting doubt on whether the administration is serious about health-based drug policy.

  That doubt can only be lifted with tangible policy reforms. There are two that grow most logically from the focuses of the ONDCP’s report: no more nonviolent drug users suffering behind bars and widespread and affordable treatment for addicts. Until prohibition is repealed, neither will fully come to fruition. 


Jonathan Green is a sophomore majoring in American studies and philosophy. He can be reached at 

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