White House drug policy: an ounce more of prevention

The five-year White House drug policy emphasizes prevention and treatment, but it could do even more.

The White House drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, brings the problem of drug abuse home when he points out that “it touches virtually all of us.”

America is a disproportionate global drug abuser. It has 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes two-thirds of the world’s illicit drugs. Most people probably know a family member, a colleague, or a friend who is affected by this in one way or another – trying to help someone else, or trying to help themselves. Sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. And sometimes giving up.

In its drug policy released May 11, the Obama administration lays out a five-year strategy for fighting this scourge. It moves in the right direction by emphasizing drug prevention and treatment. The US must make more headway on reducing the demand for drugs if it wants to make more progress in the war on drugs.

For the coming fiscal year starting in October, the administration has proposed a 13 percent increase in spending on prevention programs and a nearly 4 percent increase for treating addiction.

In the criminal justice system alone, successfully treating only 10 percent of the inmates and arrestees who need it would pay for itself indirectly in reduced crime and other costs in a year – and after that provide net annual benefits of $10 billion in less crime, more productivity, and increased tax revenues.

That’s according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York. It finds that 80 percent of felony inmates and juvenile arrestees are connected to drug or alcohol abuse in some way – for instance, committing their crime while high on alcohol or drugs, stealing money to buy drugs, or having a history of substance abuse and addiction.

(For Monitor editorials on legalization of marijuana, click here and here.)

The administration’s strategy also pays special attention to the fastest-growing drug problem, abuse of prescription drugs and its attendant rise in overdose deaths. For instance, the Office of National Drug Control Policy wants to help more states set up databases that can track doctors who overprescribe addictive pain killers.

The database idea typifies the approach here, with the telltale words “evidence-based” sprinkled throughout the policy report, which also sets goals of reducing drug abuse by 15 percent for youths in five years and by 10 percent for adults.

But has the administration gone far enough? Overall, it still spends about two-thirds of its budget on enforcement and one third on prevention and treatment.

The government can, and should, continue its war on drugs, and keep tipping the balance toward greater prevention and treatment (young people who make it to age 21 without developing an addiction are unlikely to develop one after that age).

But because this problem begins with so many young people, its ultimate solution rests with families, with strong parental presence and support – and with caring and intervention by other adults in a young person’s life. Parents, pastors, teachers, coaches. This is the first line of defense, and the strongest.

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