“Yeah, marijuana is not a factor in the drug war.”
That’s the blunt assessment of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. It marks an evolution from statements Kelly made last year, when he said the “hypocrisy” of legalizing pot in the United States could make efforts to combat drug production overseas more difficult. As Kelly put it last year, Latin American countries could look at U.S. marijuana legalization efforts and say, “ ‘Why would we do more [to deal with drug cultivation] when you seem to be legalizing this stuff?’ ”
On “Meet the Press,” however, Kelly explained what he’s concerned about now:
It’s three things. Methamphetamine. Almost all produced in Mexico. Heroin. Virtually all produced in Mexico. And cocaine that comes up from further south. Those three drugs result in the death of I think in ’15, I think, of 52,000 people to include opiates. It’s a massive problem. 52,000 Americans dead. You can’t put a price on human misery. The cost to the United States is over $250 billion a year.
The solution is not arresting a lot of users. The solution is a comprehensive drug-demand reduction program in the United States that involves every man and woman of goodwill.
Kelly’s drugs of concern include some of the drivers of the current overdose epidemic. Heroin killed nearly 13,000 people in 2015, according to the CDC. Another 6,800 died of cocaine overdoses, and addictive stimulants, including meth, added another 5,700 deaths.
Kelly’s stance on marijuana is somewhat at odds with remarks by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has repeatedly criticized legalization and linked it to rising violence. Kelly also comes across as more dovish on pot than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who chairs Trump’s opiate commission. (As a presidential candidate, Christie promised a crackdown on legal weed if he won the White House and characterized pot as “poison.”)
Even more striking, given Kelly’s role in the tough-on-crime Trump administration, is his contention that we can’t arrest our way out of the drug problem and should instead focus on limiting demand.
This stands in sharp contrast to the so-called supply-side approach — arrest dealers and users, destroy drugs — championed by the FBI’s James B. Comey and the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Chuck Rosenberg. It’s also considerably softer than the tough talk on the issue we’ve heard from Trump, who reportedly praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody crackdown on drug use as “the right way” and vowed to be “ruthless” in the fight against drugs.
Kelly’s also somewhat at odds with the incoming chief of the Office on National Drug Control Policy, who said last year that he would like to see drug users committed to a “hospital-slash-prison.”
History and research would appear to be on Kelly’s side on the question of how best to deal with the drug epidemic. Decades of punitive, incarceration-based measures in the United States, like the ones championed by today’s FBI and DEA, only led to cheaper, purer forms of heroin and other drugs. By contrast, after Portugal removed penalties for drug use in 2001, the rates of drug overdose and HIV infection dropped significantly.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime — no friend to legalization efforts — recommends noncoercive treatment rather than punishment for drug users, backing up its argument with copious citations of peer-reviewed research.
In a Trump administration that seems committed to bringing back the harsh anti-drug rhetoric and policies of the ’80s and ’90s, Kelly stands out for supporting the more treatment-based approaches to drug abuse that align with what we now know about how those policies actually work.