Why the White House has shifted its policy on tackling drug use — and why it’s not alone

Over the past few years, the White House has shifted its drug policy away from putting low-level offenders in jail and prison and toward helping them access addiction treatment -- an approach that dovetails with the life of acting drug czar Michael Botticelli, a recovering alcoholic.

It's a strategy has a rare distinction nowadays: it has been embraced by both Republicans and Democrats.

As the nation grapples with fresh waves of prescription drug and heroin abuse, members of both parties are calling for a shift away from using the criminal justice system to address the problem, and toward public health-based approach to drug addiction.

"You just can’t bust enough people to solve this problem,” Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich said in January. Drug overdose deaths in Ohio increased by 366 percent from 2000 to 2014. “The problem has to be solved at the beginning, which is to keep people from getting involved with these drugs.”


NEW YORK, NY - MAY 27: A kit of Naloxone, a heroin antidote that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, is displayed at a press conference about a new community prevention program for heroin overdoses in which New York police officers will carry kits of Naloxone, on May 27, 2014 in New York City. The New York Police Department is being provided 19,500 kits for officers; the program will begin after officers receive training. The Naloxone is administered nasally. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Why are politicians of all persuasions calling for treatment-oriented solutions?

The biggest reason: the spike in drug overdoses isn't dropping and public opinion has increasingly tilted toward providing treatment to people with addiction issues.

A survey released in April by the Pew Research Center found an overwhelming majority of Americans believe the government's approach to drug policy should focus on treatment.

And that support cuts across political parties. Fifty-one percent of Republicans, 77 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of independents who participated in the Pew survey think the government should focus on a treatment-oriented approach to drug addiction, not a prosecution-focused strategy.

One of the most forceful advocates for treatment is Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. In June, the former law-and-order former prosecutor framed his support for drug treatment as a "pro-life" issue.

"We have tried for 40-plus years for a war on drugs that is wide and broad," Christie said, "and it hasn’t worked. It hasn’t worked. What works is giving those people, nonviolent drug offenders, addicts, the ability to be able to get the tools they need to be able to deal with this disease."

Christie's motivations are both personal and pragmatic. A close friend of his battled with addiction for years and died earlier this year. And New Jersey is in the midst of a full-blown heroin crisis.

According to the New Jersey attorney general, there were 449 overdose deaths from heroin and morphine -- an opiate that heroin sometimes appears as during an autopsy -- in 2012, 591 deaths in 2013 and 380 from January 1 to June 30, 2014.

The treatment-oriented strategy taking root nationwide is also reflected in the way that law enforcement is handling overdose cases. Dozens of states have modified their drug laws to include so-called "Good Samaritan" laws, which give legal immunity to people who call 911 when a person is overdosing on drugs. Prosecutors across the country are focusing on filing charges against drug dealers rather than casual users. Naloxone (also known as Narcan), a drug that can reverse heroin overdoses, is also being made more widely available.

Politically, the shift has made for some seemingly strange political bedfellows. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) teamed up this year to introduce a bill that would reform the criminal justice system, part of which includes shifting low-level drug offenders out of prison and toward treatment. Booker and Paul have both said that the nation's current drug laws -- particularly ones pertaining to marijuana -- disproportionately affect young African-American men.

"Some of it, particular the criminal justice proposals, is part of the sort of libertarian-ish message that I’ve always had -- that the war on drugs has been unfair and it just turns out that it’s had a real racial component to it. Inadvertent, but it’s still necessarily it is," Paul said in an interview with The Washington Post in June.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has also extolled the value of drug courts that funnel people toward treatment. In Congress, the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee announced a bipartisan working group to study the impact of prescription drug abuse and how to stop it. Attorney General Eric Holder has called for reduced sentences for low-level drug dealers and for the diversion of some of those offenders toward treatment programs.

The War on Drugs may not be over. But on one front, it seems there are fewer getting caught in the crossfire.

 

Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
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