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The White House
For Immediate Release

Director Botticelli's Remarks at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs Side Event on Sentencing Reform and Alternatives to Prison

I am honored to be here with our close hemispheric partners from the Governments of Colombia, Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago, and OAS/CICAD.

Each of our countries has its own experiences, policies, and specific challenges, but we all share something – we are all committed to working on drug policies that are effective at reducing drug use and its consequences .

Guided by the OAS Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas, informed by the work of the Colombian-led Working Group on Alternatives to Incarceration, and drawing from  our own experiences, we know that incarcerating drug users will never solve the drug problem.

In fact, locking people up for minor drug offenses, especially individuals with untreated substance use disorders, does not work.

It’s costly, cruel, does not make the public safer, and doesn’t reduce the power or violence of the drug cartels.

It’s past time for a change.

Thankfully, our predecessors who developed the U.N. drug control conventions explicitly authorized the use of alternative sentences for drug users and minor drug offenses. We must make full use of that authority to reform our policies.

No country in the world has dug a deeper hole for itself with regard to drug-related incarceration than the United States. However, I am pleased to say that our incarceration rate has begun to decline.

We have much more to do, but we’re moving in the right direction.

The Federal Government and our states are updating our drug sentencing laws, channeling funds once designated for prisons into treatment services, and instituting a growing range of alternatives to incarceration.

My colleague from the Department of Justice will discuss these efforts later in more detail.

In promoting reform we are not suggesting that illegal behavior be ignored, or that drug use and sales are not serious matters. The point is that there are better alternatives than prison for people with low-level drug offenses.

There is no single intervention or program that works in every country or for every individual. But there are some broad principles that we believe in and that are reflected in the CND resolution the United States has proposed this year:

  1. Laws, Policies, and Practices must be reviewed and updated. In most of our countries, legislative changes, as well as training for police, prosecutors, and judges, are necessary to promote progress. Sentences should be proportionate, fair, and transparent.
  2. The health and justice sectors must work together. Arrested drug users need to be screened for substance use disorders, and routed into the health services they need. This requires close collaboration between health and justice ministries.  If silos exist between these sectors, they must be broken down.
  3. Treatment capacity should expand. Alternatives can work only if evidence-based treatment is available. This requires investment in a treatment infrastructure, including trained personnel, protocols, and facilities. It also means that labor camps, which are not evidence-based, cannot be used as a form of drug treatment.
  4. More pilot programs should be launched. Alternatives to incarceration require a mix of health services, monitoring, incentives, and sanctions. Determining the right combination of these elements requires new initiatives to be developed, implemented, and evaluated.
  5. We must learn from each other. Important initiatives are ongoing around the world. We can speed up progress by exchanging experiences, bringing researchers and experts together, and publishing best practices.

The United States has by no means perfected its policies. But we have begun this journey and are committed to seeing it through.

We are also working to change the way we talk about people who have been involved in the justice system and those with substance use disorders. Traditionally, we’ve used words like “addict” and “ex-offender,” but it’s important that we all work toward lifting the stigma associated with substance use disorders and recognize it as a disease. Evidence shows that stigma often prevents people from obtaining the treatment they need. 

We are very pleased for the opportunity to partner in drug policy reform efforts with our colleagues here today, and we look forward to deepening that partnership in the months and years ahead. 

Thank you.