A drug policy

for the 21st century


The President has outlined his vision of an America built to last—where an educated, skilled workforce has the knowledge, energy and expertise to compete in the global marketplace. Yet—for far too many Americans—that vision is limited by drug use, which not only limits the potential of the individual, but jeopardizes families, communities and neighborhoods.

The economic costs of drug use are enormous: In 2007 alone, illicit drug use cost our Nation more than $193 billion in lost productivity, healthcare, and criminal justice costs. But the human costs are worse. Nationwide, drug-induced overdose deaths now surpass homicides and car crash deaths in America.

The Obama Administration’s plan to reduce drug use and its consequences—the National Drug Control Strategy—represents a 21st century approach to drug policy. This science-based plan, guided by the latest research on substance use, contains more than 100 specific reforms to support our work to protect public health and safety in America.

The Science

Dr. Nora Volkow Explains the Science of Addiction
Photo Credit: National Institute of Drug Abuse

Throughout much of the last century, scientists studying drug abuse labored in the shadows of powerful myths and misconceptions about the nature of addiction. When science began to study addictive behavior in the 1930s, people addicted to drugs were thought to be morally flawed and lacking in willpower. Those views shaped society's responses to drug abuse, treating it as a moral failing rather than a health problem, which led to an emphasis on punitive rather than preventative and therapeutic responses.

Even now, discussion of substance use disorders is too often relegated to the shadows, steeped in stigma and misunderstanding.

Today, thanks to significant advances in neuroscience, our Nation's responses to drug abuse have begun to change. Groundbreaking discoveries about the brain have revolutionized our understanding of drug addiction, enabling us to respond more effectively to the problem.

“This issue touches every family and every community in one way or another. There are millions of Americans – including myself – who are in successful long-term recovery from a substance use disorder. This policy supports each and every one of us and demonstrates a real commitment to a smarter, more humane approach to drug policy in the 21st century.”

-  Michael Botticelli, Acting Director, National Drug Control Policy

Science demonstrates that addiction is a disease of the brain—a disease that can be prevented and treated, and from which people can recover. The Administration's drug policy reflects this understanding by emphasizing prevention and access to treatment over incarceration, pursing "smart on crime" rather than "tough on crime" approaches to drug-related offenses, and support for early health interventions designed to break the cycle of drug use, crime, incarceration, and re-arrest.


“ [T]his Administration remains committed to a balanced public health and public safety approach to drug policy. This approach is based on science, not ideology—and scientific research suggests that we have made real progress.”

- President Barack Obama

Drug Policy 101

Advocates for Action: Pam Rodriguez and Melody Heaps
Pamela Rodriguez and Melody Heaps are re-designing the criminal justice system to break the cycle of addiction, arrest, and incarceration.
Advocate for Action: Dr. Steven Loyd
Dr. Steven Loyd is working to educate other physicians about safe prescribing practices after entering recovery from a substance use disorder involving prescription drugs himself.
Advocate for Action: Judge Robert Russell
Judge Robert Russell is helping link veterans struggling with substance use disorders to the programs, benefits, and services they have earned.

While law enforcement will always play a vital role in protecting our communities from drug-related crime and violence, we simply cannot incarcerate our way out of the drug problem. Put simply, an enforcement-centric “war on drugs” approach to drug policy is counterproductive, inefficient, and costly. At the other extreme, drug legalization also runs counter to a public health and safety approach to drug policy. The more Americans use drugs, the higher the health, safety, productivity, and criminal justice costs we all have to bear.

The Administration's 21st century drug policy plan provides an evidence based alternative to these approaches. Here's how it works.

Emphasizing prevention over incarceration. Preventing drug use before it begins— particularly among young people— is the most cost-effective way to reduce drug use and its consequences. In fact, recent research has concluded that every dollar invested in school-based substance use prevention programs has the potential to save up to $18 in costs related to substance use disorders.

That's why the President's plan promotes the expansion of national and community-based programs—such as the Drug Free Communities Support Program—that reach young people in schools, on college campuses, and in the workplace with tailored information designed to help them make healthy decisions about their future. But prevention alone isn't enough.

Training health care professionals to intervene early before addiction develops. Early detection and treatment of a substance use problem by a doctor, nurse, or other health care professional is much more effective and less costly than dealing with the consequences of addiction or criminal justice involvement later on. Therefore, the Administration's plan works to expand programs that train health care professionals to identify and treat problematic drug use before the condition becomes chronic. By supporting programs like Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment, we can promote healthy lifestyles, prevent addictive disorders from taking hold, and reduce the number of people entering the criminal justice system. For too many, however, drug use has progressed to the point of a disorder and requires treatment.

Expanding access to treatment. Today, about 22 million Americans need treatment for a substance use disorder, and yet only 2 million—about 1-in-10—actually receive the treatment they need. This is unacceptable. Research shows that addiction is a disease from which people can recover. In fact, success rates for treating addictive disorders are roughly on par with recovery rates for other chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma, and hypertension.

Recognizing this, the Obama Administration has taken unprecedented action to expand access to treatment for millions of Americans. Through the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies will be required to cover treatment for addiction just as they would cover any other chronic disease. We estimate that with the Affordable Care Act, 62.5 million people will receive expanded substance abuse benefits by 2020, with 32.1 million gaining those benefits for the first time. To support this expansion, the President's FY 2014 Budget includes an increase of $1.4 billion for treatment over the FY 2012 amount, the largest such request for treatment funding in decades.

Taking a "smart on crime" approach to drug enforcement. Drugs and crime are often linked, which is why addressing serious drug related crime and violence will always be a vital component of our plan to protect public health and safety in America. But at the end of the day, we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem. The Obama Administration has made clear we will not focus limited Federal drug enforcement resources on individual drug users. Instead, our drug policy emphasizes the expansion of innovative "smart on crime" strategies proven to help break the cycle of drug use, crime, arrest, and incarceration.

Our plan calls for substantial reforms to the Nation's criminal justice system to lower incarceration rates and reduce recidivism while protecting public safety: Reforms like the expansion of specialized courts that divert non-violent drug offenders into treatment instead of prison. Reforms like smart diversion programs that identify first time offenders who have a substance use disorder and provide community health services instead of a jail cell or arrest record. Reforms like reentry programs, which help guide former offenders back into society, support their recovery from addiction, and help them avoid a return to the criminal justice system.

Giving a voice to Americans in recovery. Millions of Americans successfully make the journey from addiction to recovery. Yet too often, these Americans face barriers to maintaining their sobriety, including a lack of access to housing, employment, or even getting a driver's license or student loan.

In support of the roughly 23 million Americans in recovery today, the President's plan seeks to eliminate legislative and regulatory barriers facing Americans who have made the successful journey from addiction to sobriety. As part of this effort, the Obama Administration has, for the first time, established a Recovery Branch at the Office of National Drug Control Policy to support Americans in recovery and help lift the stigma associated with addiction.

This is what a 21st century approach to drug policy looks like.

2014 Advocates for Action

Ed Jurith
Honoring our distinguished colleague.
Judge Arthur L. Burnett, Sr.
Being honored for his role in beginning the National African American Drug Policy Coalition.
Dr. Joan Standora
Improving clinical, administrative and educational practices in the field of substance use disorders.
Scott Strode
Helping individuals with substance use disorders find and maintain their recovery through sport.
Melody Heaps and Pamela Rodriguez
Advancing system-wide justice interventions for people with substance use disorders.
Judge Robert Russell
Pioneering the drug treatment court movement.
Commander Harry Schmidt
Strengthening international partnerships against transnational organized crime and illicit trafficking.
Dr. Kenneth Silverman
Advancing innovative intervention and treatment practices.
Steve Talpins
Identifying and promoting new strategies to reduce illegal drug use and its consequences.
Dr. Steven Loyd
Preventing and addressing prescription drug abuse through prescriber education.

The President's Plan to Reform Drug Policy

On July 9, 2014, National Drug Control Policy Acting Director Michael Botticelli released the President’s national blueprint for drug policy, the 2014 National Drug Control Strategy. This document builds on drug policy reform achieved during the past four years, beginning with the Administration’s inaugural Strategy, released in 2010. This Strategy calls for drug policy reform rooted in scientific research on addiction, evidence-based prevention programs, increased access to treatment, a historic emphasis on recovery, and criminal justice reform.

  • Prevent drug use before it ever begins through education
    Preventing drug use before it begins is cost-effective and common-sense. Through prevention, we enable teens to achieve more in school, we make our roads safer by cutting down on drugged driving, and we make our workplaces more productive. Preventing drug use also lowers HIV-transmission rates due to decreased injection drug use, creates safer home environments for children, and revitalizes neighborhoods. Put simply, drug prevention saves lives and cuts costs.
    #DrugPolicyReform is more funding for prevention and treatment than for domestic law enforcement and incarceration. Wh.gov/DrugPolicyReform
  • Expand access to treatment for Americans struggling with addiction
    On April 10, 2013, the President requested a $1.4 billion increase in funding for treatment programs—the biggest requested increase in two decades. For millions of Americans, substance use progresses to a point where the efforts of the individual—and his or her family and friends—may not be sufficient to bring the problem under control. In these cases, access to addiction treatment can be a critical–even lifesaving–resource. Like other chronic diseases, addiction can be managed successfully. Effective treatment enables people to counteract addiction's powerful effects on the brain and regain control of their lives. It also makes sense economically: for every dollar we spend on treatment, we save four dollars in health care costs and seven dollars in public safety costs.
    #DrugPolicyReform is a $1.4 billion increase in funding for treatment—the biggest increase in 2 decades. Wh.gov/DrugPolicyReform
  • Reform our criminal justice system
    Over the past 25 years, the U.S. prison and jail population reached an all-time high and the number of people on probation and parole doubled. In 2009, nearly seven million people were under supervision of the state and Federal criminal justice systems. Nearly two million of these people were incarcerated, while the remaining five million were on probation or parole. Unfortunately, many people charged with drug-related crimes are often ill – afflicted with an underlying substance use disorder. Many of these people don’t need jail time. They need treatment, and they deserve a chance to recover and change their lives. That’s why this Administration is working to expand innovative programs like drug court annually that divert more than 100,000 non-violent offenders into treatment instead of prison. To achieve lasting criminal justice reform, we must continue to look for ways to turn “tough on crime” to “smart on crime.”
    #DrugPolicyReform is keeping non-violent offenders out of prison and jails, and into a second chance through drug court. Wh.gov/DrugPolicyReform
  • Support Americans in recovery
    More than 20 million Americans have made the successful journey from addiction to recovery. For many, that journey started with secular or faith-based treatment programs. Others found their way into recovery through medication-assisted treatment or mutual aid without treatment. Their stories show there is hope for every addicted American, and that recovery is not only possible, but is a positive force that transforms individuals, families, and communities. We are committed to spreading the promise of recovery across the Nation. As part of this effort, the Obama Administration has established the first ONDCP office devoted to supporting Americans in recovery for drug or alcohol abuse.
    #DrugPolicyReform is talking about addiction openly and celebrating recovery to lift the stigma. Wh.gov/DrugPolicyReform

Our Record of Reform

  • Expanding access to treatment to millions
    In March 2010, the President signed the Affordable Care Act into law. The new law requires insurers to cover treatment for substance use disorders just as they would cover treatment for other chronic diseases, starting in 2014. The Affordable Care Act will expand mental health and substance use disorder benefits and parity protections for 62 million Americans.
    #DrugPolicyReform is requiring insurance companies to provide coverage for addiction treatment. RT if you agree. Wh.gov/DrugPolicyReform
  • Reduced unfair powder vs. crack cocaine sentencing disparity
    In August 2010, the President signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law. This significant piece of drug policy reform dramatically reduced the 100-to-1 disparity in mandatory minimum sentencing between powder and crack cocaine, which disproportionately impacted African Americans. The law also increased penalties for major drug traffickers.
    Being smart on crime instead of tough on crime. That’s what #DrugPolicyReform looks like. Wh.gov/DrugPolicyReform
  • Removed longstanding ban on Federal funding for needle exchange
    On December 16, 2009 - despite subsequent action by Congress - President Obama signed into law an end to the longstanding ban on most Federal funding for needle exchange programs, expanding opportunities to stop the spread of HIV and other infections among injection drug users (IDUs). The Administration continues to support a consistent policy that would allow Federal funds to be used in locations where local authorities deem needle exchange programs to be effective and appropriate.
    The Obama Administration supports lifting ban on Fed funding for needle exchange. RT if you agree. Wh.gov/DrugPolicyReform #DrugPolicyReform
  • Eliminated first mandatory minimum drug sentence in four decades
    By signing the Fair Sentencing Act into law, President Obama eliminated the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine. This is the first time in 40 years that a mandatory minimum drug sentence has been repealed.
    President Obama eliminated first mandatory minimum drug sentence in 40 years. Learn more about #DrugPolicyReform Wh.gov/DrugPolicyReform
  • Expanding the use of naloxone to reverse overdose
    The Obama Administration is supporting and working to expand the use of naloxone – a lifesaving overdose-reversal drug – so that first responders can be prepared to safely handle individuals experiencing life-threatening opioid overdoses and help prevent more deaths associated with our Nation’s prescription drug abuse epidemic.
    Together we can stop overdose deaths. Learn about naloxone and Obama #DrugPolicyReform efforts Wh.gov/DrugPolicyReform
  • Reducing Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic
    The Obama Administration has taken historic action to address the Nation’s prescription drug abuse epidemic. In 2011, ONDCP released a Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Plan, which focuses on education, prescription drug monitoring programs, proper disposal, and enforcement. In October 2010, the President signed the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act into law. The law will help communities reduce the Nation’s prescription drug abuse epidemic by making it easier to properly dispose of expired, unused, or unneeded prescription drugs. The number of people currently abusing prescription drugs has decreased significantly, from 7 million in 2010 to 6.1 million in 2011, a 13 percent decrease.
    Prescription drug abuse is an epidemic. Learn more about what we’re doing to help. http://wh.gov/Yat #DrugPolicyReform
  • Historic focus on recovery
    In October 2009, the Administration established the first Recovery Branch as part of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The new branch supports the 23.5 million Americans in recovery by working to eliminate barriers to recovery and lift the stigma associated with those suffering from substance use disorders.
    Over 20 million Americans are in recovery from addiction. Learn about our #DrugPolicyReform work to support them Wh.gov/DrugPolicyReform
  • Refined mandatory minimum sentencing policies
    The Administration has taken action to ensure that the most severe mandatory minimum penalties are reserved for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers. As a result, the Department of Justice has refined its policies regarding mandatory minimums for certain nonviolent, low-level drug offenders. Specifically, the Attorney General has issued guidance to Federal prosecutors indicating they (1) should decline to pursue charges that would trigger a mandatory minimum sentence in the case of certain low-level, non-violent drug offenders; (2) in these cases, consider recommending a below-guidelines sentence to the court if certain criteria are met; and (3) should decline to charge an enhancement that would double the sentence of certain repeat drug offenders unless the defendant is involved in conduct that makes the case appropriate for severe sanctions.
    Addressing the mandatory minimum sentencing problem. That’s #DrugPolicyReform. See more at wh.gov/drugpolicyreform

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