This is historical material “frozen in time”. The website is no longer updated and links to external websites and some internal pages may not work.

Search form

The White House
For Immediate Release

The "Third Way," A New Approach to U.S. Drug Policy: Director's Remarks at CADCA Prevention Program, Guatemala

 Remarks of Director Gil Kerlikowske – As Prepared for Delivery
Guatemala City, Guatemala
June 22, 2012

The "Third Way": A New Approach to U.S. Drug Policy

As Prepared for Delivery –

Thank you all for joining me today - it is such an honor for me to see all of the great work being done here. 

First, I want to take a moment to thank all of the teachers here at Primeros Pasos (First Steps).  It is clear to me that you are so devoted to the young people of your community.  On behalf of President Obama, thank you for helping to raise a healthy, safe, new generation.

Let me also take a minute to thank all of the students I got a chance to meet today.  One of the greatest parts of my job is being able to hear from young people directly.  What I hear from you is tremendously important, so thank you for taking the time to meet with me. 

You know, when many people think about a “Drug Czar” they think about law enforcement.  For some, perhaps images of seized drugs come to mind.  Others might think of military anti-drug operations, or prisons or jails.  But the truth is, law enforcement is not the most powerful tool we have in reducing drug use. What are the most powerful tools? Prevention and education.

I don’t make this claim without lightly or without experience. Before I became the drug czar, I spent more than thirty years as a law enforcement official.  And while smart law enforcement– especially against transnational criminal organizations – will always play a vital role in protecting public safety, I will tell you what I’ve learned over the course of my career: we cannot arrest our way out of the global drug problem. 

But let me be clear. We recognize that Guatemala and other nations throughout Central America are facing an existential threat to public safety because of Transnational Organized Crime.  Because effective pressure has been applied in other regions, these criminal organizations are seeking to expand their operations here, spreading violence, corruption and extortion like a virus.

The United States will continue to steadfastly support security in this region—let there be no doubt about that. Through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and other initiatives, we are helping create safe streets here, disrupt drug trafficking, and support democratic institutions.  A noteworthy part of this effort is the funding we’re providing for community policing, gang prevention, and social programs for at-risk youth like Primeros Pasos here today.

All of this is good, and fundamental to our mutual work to curb the sale and use of drugs. But for all the funding, community building, and trafficking disruption, it must be said that the consumption of drugs is our greatest challenge. It’s drug consumption that damages the health of citizens and emboldens criminal organizations.

It has been said that if the United States would only curb its demand for drugs, the suffering drug trafficking causes in Latin America would be erased.   But we live in a globalized world in which no country is immune to the harmful effects of drug abuse. Increasingly, we are seeing that drug consumption is not just a problem in the United States, but here in Central America—right here in Guatemala—as well.

Drug consumption is a serious challenge that affects every nation and every citizen – regardless of geography, race, or age.

The good news is that in the United States, we are seeing dramatic declines in drug use.  Over the past three decades, the rate of drug use in the U.S. has plummeted by about 30 percent.  And since 2006, cocaine use has dropped by 40 percent and meth use has dropped by half. 

The bad news is that we’re seeing increases in drug consumption throughout Central America.  And as we have seen today, Guatemala is not immune to drug use. 

This trend is particularly worrisome considering the volatility of the drug policy debate in Latin America. At the Summit of the Americas in April, President Santos of Colombia spoke out on behalf of reasonable, realistic policies. He said,

“We have the obligation to see if we’re doing the best that we can do, or are there other alternatives that can be much more efficient?...One side can be all the consumers go to jail. On the other extreme is legalization.On the middle ground, we may have more practical policies.”

Yet, recently, we have heard from several ex-presidents from Central and Latin America – who are no longer elected officials accountable to their people – suggesting that drug legalization would be a “silver bullet” for our shared drug challenge.  Legalization of drugs and trafficking, they argue, will do everything from eliminate violent criminal organizations to fill government coffers with revenue. 

There is little or no evidence to support the rationale that legalization reduces crime and violence. Transnational criminal organizationsdo not derive revenue exclusively from drugs, nor would they disband if drugs were legalized.  They are increasingly diversified businesses, profiting from human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and intellectual property theft. It’s naïve to imagine that transnational criminal organizations would suddenly abandon the drug trade if drugs were made legal—such a move, in fact, would embolden them.

These legalization proposals are driven by ideology and ignore evidence that shows increased drug use would have devastating public health and safety consequences throughout the hemisphere.

The Obama Administration strongly believes that neither drug legalization nor a law-enforcement-centric “War on Drugs” reflects humane, evidence-based policy.  Neither of these paths acknowledges the complexity of the global drug problem. Neither of these paths reflects the reality that the global drug threat should be treated as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue. 

Just a few weeks ago, we released the Obama Administration’s 2012 National Drug Control Strategy – America’s primary blueprint for drug policy.  Far from the extremes of legalization and “war on drugs,” the Strategy charts a “third way” for our Nation to approach drug control – a way that emphasizes the value of treatment, prevention and recovery as part of a comprehensive plan to ameliorate the many consequences of drug use.

We know that this public health emphasis is effective and on-target because over the past two decades, the scientific community has demonstrated that drug addiction is not a moral failing on the part of an individual – but a chronic disease that can be prevented and treated. 

This basic understanding of the nature of addiction is vital – because we believe it provides the international community with a smarter way forward on global drug policy.  One that is compassionate, evidence- based, and most importantly – grounded in what science – not ideology or dogma—tells us about the true nature of drug addiction.   

This strategy is not just words, it's action: 

  • Over the past three years, we have spent $31 billion on drug education and treatment programs in the United States.  President Obama’s Budget also requests an additional $10 billion for the next fiscal year to reduce drug consumption.
  • We are supporting drug education programs for youth.  As part of this effort, we’ve provided over $370 million in funding through the Drug Free Communities program to more than 700 local community coalitions made up of organizers working to prevent drug use among teens across America.  These are programs almost identical to the one we are seeing here today.
  • We also maintain a National Youth Anti-Drug Media campaign, focused on helping young people make healthy decisions.  Reaching them online through Facebook and other social media.  Already over one million young people have joined our Facebook page.

Let me close by emphasizing that the U.S. is committed to citizen health safety here in Guatemala and throughout Central America.  When we craft policies or support programs, we are mindful that what we do impacts the everyday lives of our citizens.

That is why I am here today.  To give a voice to the voiceless in this heated debate about drug policies.  As economists and theorists with a political agenda to legalize drugs press on, we will continue to advocate for effective programs like these that make a real difference in the lives of young people.

The strength of building a strong hemisphere lies in its people, in their communities, and in their desire for a better life. The work all of you are doing here is essential to ensuring future generations have the opportunity to live free from the threat of drug use in a strong, prosperous, and healthy Nation.

Thank you.