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The White House
For Immediate Release

Remarks by Gil Kerlikowske at the George Washington University Conference on “Hemispheric Security: Emerging Issues”


Washington, DC— Thank you for that kind introduction.

In discussing the issue of drug control in the Western Hemisphere, it is worth starting with an uncontroversial fact; that substance abuse takes a huge toll on public health, public safety, and on the financial resources not just on the United States, but countries around the region and around the world. It follows that in order to lessen the costs that drug use and its consequences impose on all of us, we must reduce drug use.

There was a time when the question of how to reduce drug use was cast as an all-or-nothing choice between demand reduction and supply reduction. But we know today that both demand reduction and supply reduction have had major impacts on illicit drug availability and use. Similarly, it was once common to imagine an either-or choice about how to deal with drug users, either with law enforcement measures on the one hand, or so-called “softer” approaches on the other.

The truth is that drug control has never been an all-or-nothing, either-or choice, and always involves a combination of tools. But it’s also true that experience, as well as science, has taught us a lot more than we once knew, and we have many more effective tools at our disposal than we once did. That’s why the Obama Administration has been so committed to a thorough reorganization and rebalancing of our efforts to reduce drug use and its consequences.

Instead of seeing the Nation’s efforts against substance abuse and its consequences through a “war” lens, the Administration is promoting a new, comprehensive approach to drug policy that strengthens our focus on prevention, raising awareness of addiction as a disease, enhancing support for those in recovery from addiction, and promotes smarter use of law enforcement resources. At the heart of this approach is what we now know about addiction; that it’s a disease, not a moral failing; that addiction is preventable, that it is treatable, and that recovery from addiction is possible.

Our approach starts with prevention, because the most cost effective and efficient means of addressing a disease like addiction is to stop it before it ever starts. Years of research on prevention taught us that youth substance initiation and use share some common risk pathways with other problem behaviors, like aggression and other risky behaviors. But we know a lot more about prevention today than we did a decade ago, and stopping drug use before it begins is unique from other types of prevention. There are risk factors specific to substance abuse, like missing school, hanging out with the wrong crowd, and bad grades, which must be considered in designing and supporting effective drug prevention programs.

And our commitment to prevention is real; the President’s FY2012 National Drug Control Budget requests Federal resources totaling $1.7 billion to support a variety of education and outreach programs aimed at preventing the initiation of drug use. This represents a 7.9 percent ($123.0 million) increase over the FY 2010 enacted level.

We are also working with international allies, including other consumer countries, to reduce drug consumption and the global supply of drugs. Following years of such support from the United States, a host of nations have successfully begun to nationalize their own counterdrug efforts. As we engage in this national and international conversation about drug policy, it is essential to evaluate programs objectively. It is hard to argue against the proposition that we should do what works, especially in an austere budget environment.

The issue is an emotional one for many, and there are data gaps, but we are implementing measures that allow us to more effectively evaluate programs for effectiveness. Every policy is not effective, but as we go about deciding which ones to keep and which ones to end, we must avoid the temptation of condemning them all or hanging on to them all.

An entire chapter of our National Drug Control Strategy, soon to be updated in the 2011 Strategy, is devoted to programs to build and strengthen drug data gathering and analysis. This emphasis on measurable performance metrics extends to our budget. The Obama Administration believes the National Drug Control Budget should represent the full range of Federal spending, including costs associated with the consequences of drug use.
The recently restructured Federal Drug Control budget includes agencies and programs that make an important contribution to a balanced drug control effort. It uses empirical data to provide a reasonable basis for the consistent estimation of drug control-related funding, and fairly quantify the agency’s involvement in drug control activities. We can always work to improve the quality and quantity of information we have to shed light on the effectiveness of our efforts, but I’d like to focus on one area where we have clear, consistent and unambiguous evidence that those efforts are bearing fruit.

We have provided effective assistance to Colombia in its efforts under “Plan Colombia” to reduce violence and insecurity and cut the production potential for cocaine substantially. Between the peak in 2001 and last year, cocaine production potential in Colombia fell from about 700 metric tons pure to about 270 metric tons pure in 2009. Importantly, this supply-reduction success in Colombia has not produced the “balloon effect,” that some predicted, whereby progress in one region is offset by losses in an adjacent region. While there have been some increases in Peruvian coca production, for the entire Andean region (containing all three coca growing nations), potential production of pure cocaine has fallen by one third since 2001.

It is a stunning and related fact, not remarked on enough, that we are now entering the fourth year of a major disruption in cocaine availability on the streets of the U.S. Not only has demand fallen, as shown by surveys as well as measures such as workplace and arrestee drug testing, but domestic price per pure gram for cocaine has risen steeply while purity has dropped significantly.

The reality is that there has been progress and even major achievements accomplished by U.S. drug policy in areas of drug consumption, drug production, drug criminal activity, and the harmful impact of the drugs themselves.

Legalization is not the answer.

Many, including former Presidents of Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia, believe that efforts to control drugs by making them illegal are futile, and suggest that decriminalization or legalization approaches would be superior. When I hear this discussion, I’m struck by the fact that these former leaders have not recognized the changes in U.S. drug policy, and in ignoring some when 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 them without ever addressing the underlying addiction. Prevention, treatment, and public health responses to illicit drug use are, in fact, hallmarks of the Obama Administration’s drug control strategy, reinforced by major budgetary investments for programs in these areas.

But decriminalizing or legalizing dangerous drugs would be a profound mistake, leading to more use, and more harmful consequences.

Do laws against drugs make any difference? Data show that the most prevalent illegal drug, marijuana, has a rate of current use in the U.S population that is substantially lower than the rates found for other, but legal, substances of abuse such as alcohol – almost eight times higher (6.6% vs. 51.9%) and cigarettes – over three times higher (6.6% vs. 23.3%). It is clear that the risks and disincentives against using illegal marijuana are factors in maintaining that lower prevalence.

Our efforts to reduce demand for marijuana have proven effective over time. From 2001 to 2006, youth use of marijuana as measured by the school-based Monitoring the Future Survey fell fully 24 percent. (MTF) However, since 2006 current use of marijuana among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders combined has increased 18 percent to 14.8 percent.

Seen in longer historical perspective, youth drug use has fallen precipitously since the late 1970’s.. National surveys show that in 1979, 14.2 percent of youth 12-17 years old reported current use of marijuana. By 2009, that figure had fallen to 7.3 percent. (NSDUH: acknowledge data discontinuity in 2001 and years before that).

A similar story of major progress on the demand side can be seen for use of cocaine, current use of which stood at 2.6 percent of the population 12 and older in 1979. In 2009, that number had dropped to only 0.7 percent. (NSDUH)

More recent data show another sharp decline in cocaine use since 2007. In that year, there were an estimated 2.1 million past month users of cocaine in the U.S.; by 2009, the number had declined 21 percent, to an estimated 1.6 million users. (NSDUH)

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.

In the U.S., we begin with the premise that demand for drugs can be reduced.

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. We are 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.

Changed Circumstances Require Changed Policy

A decade ago, it was common for countries to be characterized as either drug producers, drug transit, or drug consumer nations. These neat distinctions are no longer so clear. Today, the United States produces large amounts of potent marijuana. Both prosperous and impoverished countries in the hemisphere are struggling with increasing rates of addiction.

The threat to national security in Colombia today is greatly diminished, although by no means eliminated, as criminal gangs emerge with the power and financing to threaten public safety in particular regions, and terrorist organizations still refuse to lay down their arms.

Mexico is today, with our full support, fighting to root out the violence, corruption, and power of criminal gangs in their midst. We have already delivered the bulk of military and other equipment required by Mexico, and our focus is steadily moving to assistance with training and institutional enhancement. We must focus our approach, throughout the hemisphere, on measures that contribute to a sustainable hemispheric solution. There is nothing more important in this regard than creating conditions where our assistance is no longer needed.

We are evolving from being a nation that provides equipment and short term assistance to one that builds the capacity of countries to provide for themselves.

President Obama’s upcoming visit to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador underscores our concern for the Americas, and that amidst competing global priorities and challenges, the Americas remain a vital strategic partner for the United States. There is a large role for AID in the hemisphere, from strengthening Congresses and municipalities to helping Ministries of Health guarantee high-quality, affordable care, and Ministries of Education ensure that children are being prepared for 21st century jobs.

In Peru, for example, the U.S. is providing direct assistance to the national counterdrug agency and municipal governments to develop economic alternatives for former coca growers. Of course, in countries in immediate crisis, the lack of security can make difficult or impossible the institutional construction necessary for sustainable, drug-free communities and nations.

Crime discourages community development and private investment and it diverts public and private resources that could otherwise be used for more productive investments. The Obama Administration is deepening President Bush’s constructive Merida Initiative to combat crime in Mexico and Central America, and expanding the effort into the Caribbean. These initiatives will strengthen the capacity of judicial systems to fairly and effectively provide justice, and will increase the amount of help we provide to prevent people from using drugs and to treat those who already use.

The heart of what AID will be doing involves supporting preventive anti-crime measures, namely providing youth vulnerable to the lure of crime with positive and productive alternatives. That means creating safe urban spaces, providing job training, and engaging in concerted efforts to keep children in school.

In Colombia, with security in place, AID has helped reduce coca production by as much as 85 percent in the geographic areas where we collaborated with the government and local communities. Today, thousands of farmers in Colombia who once cultivated coca are now growing legal crops.


We have a policy that is more “hemispheric” in scope than we have had in the past. The measures we use extend beyond drug production potential and flow toward the United States. We are focused on sustainability and proceed from the perspective that the entire hemisphere is challenged by crime, drug abuse and inadequate treatment. We seek cooperation with nations and international organizations. On the intellectual side of the equation we 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 substance abuse, those for whom treatment and recovery services transformed their lives.

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