In March, the commander in chief of the War on Drugs stood in front of a crowd of policymakers, advocates and recovering addicts to declare that America has been doing it wrong.
Speaking at the National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta – focused on an overdose epidemic now killing some 30,000 Americans a year – President Barack Obama declared, “For too long we have viewed the problem of drug abuse … through the lens of the criminal justice system,” creating grave costs: “We end up with jails full of folks who can’t function when they get out. We end up with people’s lives being shattered.”
Touting a plan to increase drug-treatment spending by more than $1 billion – the capstone to the administration’s effort to double the federal drug-treatment budget – Obama insisted, “This is a straightforward proposition: How do we save lives once people are addicted, so that they have a chance to recover? It doesn’t do us much good to talk about recovery after folks are dead.”
Obama’s speech underscored tactical and rhetorical shifts in the prosecution of the War on Drugs – the first durable course corrections in this failed 45-year war. The administration has enshrined three crucial policy reforms. First, health insurers must now cover drug treatment as a requirement of Obamacare. Second, draconian drug sentences have been scaled back, helping to reduce the number of federal drug prisoners by more than 15 percent. Third, over the screams of prohibitionists in its ranks, the White House is allowing marijuana’s march out of the black market, with legalization expected to reach California and beyond in November.