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The White House
For Immediate Release

Remarks by White House Drug Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske at the 9th Annual U.S./Mexico Drug Demand Reduction Conference

Remarks as Prepared

Thank you for having me here today. I regret that Ambassador Sarukhan could not be here, but let me just say that Mexico is privileged to have him as one of the most visible and effective Ambassadors in Washington. I also want take a moment to congratulate the Government of Mexico for yesterday’s successful capture of Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas from the La Familia organization. This important arrest shows yet again how President Calderon’s heroic efforts to directly confront violent criminal elements are leading to real results in disrupting transnational crime.

Dr. Tena, I’m also proud to appear with you to speak in more detail about the U.S. drug control strategy, and in particular our efforts to reduce the demand for drugs by our citizens.

Ambassador Sarukhan and I agree on many things, but among the most important is that the primary task of U.S. drug control policy is to prevent people from beginning to use drugs, and provide the treatment and recovery assistance needed for current users to stop.

Just as important, we agree that drug control policy is a job for every government, and that regional and global cooperation on the demand and supply control fronts is essential. No single country can effectively confront this threat by itself. Balancing public health and public safety, and advocating for the well-being of communities across the country is the underlying theme that drives President Obama’s efforts to reduce drug use and its consequences in America.

Let me begin with focusing on one of the most powerful tools against the horrific cartel violence we have seen in both the United States and in Mexico—prevention. We want to combat one of the main markets from which these international criminals profit. And research shows that those who reach the age of 21 without developing and addiction to drugs are unlikely to do so later in life. Preventing drug use improves quality of life, academic performance, workplace productivity, and military preparedness. It also reduces crime and criminal justice expenses; reduces motor vehicle crashes and fatalities; and lowers health care costs for acute and chronic conditions. Simply put, drug prevention holds the key to a healthier future for our Nation.

That is why just last week, the Obama Administration released a National Prevention Strategy to address how our Nation can move from a system of sick care to one based on wellness and prevention. And I was very pleased to see the reduction of drug use being one of major priorities highlighted in this strategy as an essential ingredient to our Nation’s health. Effective drug prevention is comprehensive and includes a combination of evidence-based interventions—such as the those developed by researchers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse; tested public educational campaigns—such as our National Anti-Drug Youth Media Campaign which you will be hearing about tomorrow; and sound environmental strategies and policies to enforce the consequences for substance-related offenses, reduce access to substances, and decrease the likelihood of use exemplified by our Drug Free Communities Program.

For those individuals already experiencing substance use problems, we are hard at work broadening our health care workforce to ensure that anyone in need of help receives it. A big part of this effort involves preparing primary care providers to gain skills in screening for substance use among patients, provide brief interventions, or refer patients to specialty drug rehabilitation centers when needed.

In addition, this past year we have focused our attention to the concept of long-term recovery. This entails finding ways to support individuals maintain their sobriety through the use of a number of recovery support services such as educational opportunities, housing, job training, and child care.

We are also working with international allies, including other consumer countries, to reduce drug consumption. By preventing drug use before it begins and helping addicted Americans enter treatment in an effort to achieve long-term recovery, we gain the additional benefit of depriving transnational criminal organizations of an important source of income. I am not naïve enough to think criminals will be put out of business and turn to legitimate pursuits. After all, transnational criminal organizations also profit from human trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, and other illegal pursuits. But reducing drug demand by liberating people from addiction and ending the recruitment of new users will contribute importantly to the creation of enduring citizen security.

I’d be remiss if I did not mention that some, including former Presidents of Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia, believe efforts to control drugs by making them illegal are futile, and suggest decriminalization or legalization approaches would be superior. Whenever I hear these arguments, I’m struck by how consistent they are in ignoring both what U.S. drug policy looks like in 2011, and some things that we already know about drug control generally.

Where we can agree with even those who advocate for a different approach is that this is not a problem for law enforcement alone. Guiding a drug addict into an effective, evidence based treatment program is less costly and more effective than jailing and then releasing him or her without ever addressing the underlying addiction. Prevention, treatment, and recovery support services are, in fact, hallmarks of the Obama Administration’s drug control strategy, reinforced by major budgetary investments for programs in these areas. Today, in fact, we spend more on drug education and treatment than on domestic law enforcement.

Moreover, it is our policy in the United States to end the “marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others. And to challenge rather than reinforce common misconceptions about drug markets, drug use and drug dependence.” If these words sound familiar it is because they were taken from the Executive Summary of the Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, leaving out just one word: “criminalization.” The Commission Report advocates decriminalization of illicit drug use, which we strongly oppose because illicit drug use is demonstrably harmful to public health. And decriminalization, not to mention legalization, causes the use of illegal drugs to become more prevalent.

The National Drug Intelligence Center has concluded studies estimating that drug abuse led to over 38,000 deaths in the United States in 2007, and generated costs to society of about $193 billion. Making drugs more easily available will make that problem substantially worse. Do laws against drugs make any difference? Data show that the most prevalent illegal drug, marijuana, has rates of current use in the U.S population barely one-sixth of the rate found for alcohol, another substance of abuse, but one that is legal. It is clear that the risks and disincentives against using an illegal substance, such as marijuana, are factors in maintaining that lower prevalence.

Seen in longer historical perspective, youth drug use has fallen precipitously over the past thirty years. Today, the rate of Americans using illicit drugs today is roughly half what it was in the late 70's. More recent data show a sharp decline in cocaine use since 2007. In that year, there were an estimated 2.1 million users of cocaine in the United States; by 2009, the number had declined 21 percent, to an estimated 1.6 million users.

It’s also worth mentioning that even Portugal, which is sometimes held up as a model for the U.S. to follow, does not argue that its approach is right for other countries. I’ve visited Portugal, and the experts I spoke with there were clear in stating that their approach is tailored to their country’s unique history, culture and demographics, and not a policy fit to plug-and-play in any country.

We want to utilize the proven power of prevention and treatment, but we are also committed to leveraging innovative criminal justice programs. For example, we strongly support drug courts, which are a proven means of using the criminal justice system to spur people in need of treatment to get it. And since 1989, they have diverted about 1.5 million non-violent offenders into drug treatment instead of jail.

The United States is also embracing other novel approaches, such as probation testing and sanctions programs modeled after Project HOPE. These programs utilize regular drug testing regimens, combined with swift and sure, but moderate sanctions, to successfully monitor drug offenders in drug treatment programs.

In Conclusion, Mexico and the United States are engaged in cooperative demand reduction, which this conference highlights. We are working on practical programs, and we intend to expand our efforts. We are focused on sustainability and proceed from the perspective that the entire hemisphere is challenged by crime, drug abuse and inadequate access to quality treatment.

We seek cooperation with nations and international organizations and are consulting broadly on our policy, with academics and non-governmental organizations as well as within government. The impact of U.S. drug control policy can be seen in the literally millions of citizens who today are in recovery from drug addiction, for whom treatment and recovery services transformed their lives.

Thank you for your attention. I look forward to your questions.