Gil Kerlikowske, career law enforcement officer and current drug czar, offers a thoughtful and well-written commentary in The Huffington Post on how we should taking a public health approach to America's drug problems.
Drug use fell throughout the 1980's, to some of the lowest levels we've ever seen - but spending on overcrowded prisons spiked to unsustainable levels, the criminal justice system came to resemble a revolving door, and the relationship between police and the communities they serve was frequently strained to the breaking point. Eventually, progress stalled and use began to rise again as it became clear that our mostly one-sided response needed retooling. Many Americans were also forced to confront a difficult truth -- that the face of the drug problem was too often that of a son, an aunt, a wife, or a father.(Too true, as our Profiles of Injustice show. If you haven't read them, take a glance. Look like someone you know? You betcha they do.) Mr. Kerlikowske seems to say that all this incarceration has caused drug use to drop, but alas, there's no solid evidence supporting that connection. Drug use ebbs and flows based on many factors, only one of which is incarceration.
Kerlikowske rightly praises the Obama administration's achievements (including passing crack sentencing reforms last year) and effort to focus on treatment, prevention, and alternatives to long prison sentences for drug offenders:
But we also know we can make progress by employing evidence-based strategies. Despite recent increases in drug use, it is half of what it was 30 years ago, cocaine production in Colombia has dropped by almost two-thirds, and we're already successfully diverting thousands of non-violent offenders into treatment instead of jail by supporting alternatives to incarceration.
Last year, President Obama also signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which dramatically reduced a 100-to-1 disparity between trafficking offenses for crack and powder cocaine. We're also providing communities with the capacity to prevent drug use and drug-related crime, increasing funding for drug courts and other alternatives to incarceration by millions of dollars, and using community corrections programs involving swift, certain, yet modest sanctions to monitor and support drug-involved offenders.
Kerlikowske says we have "no choice" but to change the way we address our drug problem. He's right. Part of that change must include making federal drug sentencing policies smarter and fairer.