Blog Post

ONDCP Blueprint: Rhetoric vs. Reality

Christopher Soda

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) released its 2013 National Drug Control Strategy last week.  While the rhetoric focused on a public health approach, when you dig to the heart of the matter you still find a criminal justice approach to dealing with drugs.  Where there were some attitudinal shifts within the report, the vast majority of the Administration’s strategy is “spin control.”

The central theme of the report is a commitment to a “balanced public health and safety approach.” For instance, “[t]he Administration supports alternatives to incarceration such as drug courts, diversion programs, enhanced probation and parole programs.”  The ONDCP considers this a public health approach but this strategy is still within the criminal justice system, which punishes drug use as a crime and a moral shortcoming.  There  is a very small number of drug courts, leaving the people most in need of treatment without. Many times, it is low-level marijuana offenders needlessly using up costly resources.

There was no discussion of moving toward decriminalization, despite the success the Portugal model has had in decreasing teenage drug use, fewer HIV infections, and fewer AIDS cases.  Another successful model is In-Site, a heroin assisted facility in Vancouver that provides clean syringes, counseling, medical treatment for disease, and a safe haven for drug users.  If the desire is to focus on prevention and a public health model – based on science – successful models that expand access to services and are actually effective need to be discussed.

The Western Hemisphere remains a key point of concentration for drug efforts, says the report.  Also brought to the forefront is our close alliance with Mexico in combatting the drug cartels, which have taken over Mexico and killed roughly 60,000 people since 2006.  All the strategies within this report for accomplishing stronger international partnerships unfortunately still revolve around greater interdiction efforts, such as joint counterdrug operations, increase in law enforcement in source countries, providing alternative employment for opium poppy cultivation, and building more build robust, honest, and capable institutions,” or prisons.   Again, same failed policies being recycled.

A more appropriate and realistic topic in this section could have been the impact from the growing movement by Latin American leaders to “break the taboo” in considering alternatives to the ineffective prohibitionist policies, and seeking a shift toward treatment.  Instead what is talked about is how cocaine use is at an all-time low and how much they have seized.  What they don’t tell you is how all those seized drugs don’t even register on the radar of drug supply or demand of illicit drugs.  A ship of drugs is seized and they send another one but the demand is always met with the supply one way or another.  Interdiction misses the opportunity to understand human psychology, or ask important questions like, “why is America one of the top consumers and abusers of illicit drugs?”  These sorts of considerations aren't pressing when your just throwing people in jail.

Some sections of the report deserve praise.  Gil Kerlikoske and the ONDCP’s embrace of naloxone is encouraging as the overdose crisis is now the leading cause of accidental death.  Greater syringe and naloxone access has tirelessly been fought for by overdose specialists and advocates so it is encouraging to see their hard work finally being acknowledged.

Getting to the conclusion, you get a clearer understanding of the actual reality of what’s behind this report, “In a debate that is often dominated by the two extremes of legalization on one hand or a “war on drugs” on the other, we are charting a bal¬anced “third way” approach to drug policy. It's clever for marketing purposes but still remains ineffective policy.

The main thing to take away from this news is the ONDCP wants to have it both ways. It sees addiction as a disease and publicly heralds that it is committed to a public health approach. But it then insists that people struggling with addiction to illicit drugs must be handled by and within the criminal justice system.


View more blog posts.