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The National Drug Control Strategy: From “Rethinking” to Reform

Innovative criminal justice programs and policy reforms—backed by evidence—hold great promise for reducing drug use and its consequences in the United States.

In a recent Saturday Essay in the Wall Street Journal, drug policy experts Mark A. R. Kleiman, Jonathan P. Caulkins, and Angela Hawken note that the problem of drug abuse and addiction does not lend itself to simple solutions: neither an enforcement-centric “war on drugs” nor the simple notion of drug legalization provide the answer to this complex public health and safety problem.  Rather, the authors point out that innovative criminal justice programs and policy reforms—backed by evidence—hold great promise for reducing drug use and its consequences in the United States.

I am pleased to see innovative ideas for addressing our country’s drug problem gaining traction in a public debate that is increasingly dominated by extremes.  Just last Tuesday I released the Obama Administration’s 2012 National Drug Control Strategy, which serves as the Nation's blueprint for reducing drug use and its consequences.  The new Strategy provides a review of the progress we have made over the past 3 years and looks ahead to our continuing efforts to reform, rebalance, and renew our national drug control policy to address the public health and safety challenges of the 21st century.  Since the publication of the Administration’s inaugural National Drug Control Strategy in 2010, the annual Strategy has been incorporating much of the research cited by the essay’s authors and turning it into action.

For example, the authors cite the promising results first achieved by Judge Steve Alm of Hawaii through the use of an enhanced probation program (Project HOPE) that employs drug testing and swift, certain—but moderate—sanctions for detected drug use.  As part of the National Drug Control Strategy, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) is funding a demonstration field experiment to test this approach in four new jurisdictions that vary widely in demographics, population, density, and geographic location—Clackamas County, OR; Essex County, MA; Saline County, AR; and Tarrant County, TX (the probation chief for Tarrant County, Leighton Iles, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal essay).  The National Institute of Justice will be conducting an evaluation of this project.

In addition, the essay highlights the Drug Market Intervention program, which reduces drug dealing and related violence by creating clear and predictable sanctions, offering a range of community services, establishing community standards for acceptable behavior, and improving community-police relations through direct engagement among law enforcement, prosecutors, drug dealers, their families, and communities.The 2012 National Drug Control Strategy includes support for technical assistance and program evaluation in communities that are implementing the Drug Market Intervention program.

These are just two examples of the Strategy’s criminal justice reform efforts, which also include support for drug treatment courts, sentencing reform, institutional change initiatives, evidence-based community supervision and reentry programs, and efforts to eliminate legal and regulatory barriers facing individuals in recovery from substance use disorders.

More information on the criminal justice reform efforts included in the National Drug Control Strategy can be found here.

R. Gil Kerlikowske is Director of National Drug Control Policy