As Barack Obama was inaugurated with great fanfare and drug czar John Walters and other Bush Administration officials exited the halls of power in Washington, D.C., the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy quietly released the 2009 National Drug Control Strategy and Making the Drug Problem Smaller, 2001-08, a report on drug-use trends during the Bush administration.
Once an occasion for great fanfare, the release of this year's drug strategy barely caused a ripple of interest, doubtless owing to its lame-duck status. Predictably, President Bush's final drug strategy document serves less as a guide to the future than a recap of the anti-drug approach taken by the outgoing administration and an opportunity to claim some victories in the drug war as conducted during the last eight years.
Citing his 2002 commitment to “turn the tide against a problem that truly threatens everything good about our country,” Bush said, “As we prepare to pass this noble charge to a new team of leaders, we can look back with satisfaction on what we have achieved together as a nation. From community coalitions to international partnerships, we pursued a balanced strategy that emphasized stopping initiation, reducing drug abuse and addiction, and disrupting drug markets.”
Bush said that teenage drug use had declined 25 percent since 2001, and that his Access to Recovery voucher program had allowed 260,000 people to get treatment. “Through law-enforcement cooperation and international partnerships, the United States has caused serious disruptions in the availability of drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, reducing the threat such drugs pose to the American people, while also denying profits to drug traffickers and terrorists,” he wrote.
The 2009 report claims success in each facet of the “balanced strategy” cited by Bush.
“The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, state-level prescription drug monitoring programs, and community-based coalitions nationwide have made a substantial impact on the progress of prevention efforts,” according to the document. “The results of drug-testing programs have been particularly encouraging. Random drug testing substantially lowered rates of substance abuse in the military, in the workplace, and in sports. Now an increasing number of schools are implementing promising nonpunitive random drug testing programs to reinforce drug-free lifestyles for their students.
On the treatment front, the strategy highlights the expansion of drug courts and screening, brief intervention and treatment program (SBIRT). As for supply-reduction efforts — by far the largest piece of Bush's anti-drug program — the report cites “impressive results in the interdiction of drugs and drug-related finances.”
“Years of close cooperation with the government of Colombia have led to a dramatic reduction in the threat posed by narcoterrorists operating there,” according to the 2009 National Drug Control Strategy. “Enhanced cooperation with the government of Mexico already has diminished the power of drug traffickers and will be critical to a long-term solution for securing our shared border.”
Much of this is open to dispute. A recent evaluation of the Drug-Free Communities program concluded that communities served by anti-drug coalitions saw faster declines in drug use than those which did not, for example, but there is little such data to support the efficacy of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. The Bush administration's funding and outreach around school-based drug testing has led some districts to implement testing programs, but relatively few have outlived — or been established exclusive of — federal grant funding.
Like President Bush, President Obama has expressed strong support for drug courts, and SBIRT programs tend to be universally praised. However, Bush's claim to have weakened Mexico's drug cartels is especially dubious given the current carnage taking place in the border regions of Mexico, and it remains to be seen if the Obama administration continues to pour billions into overseas drug interdiction and other law-enforcement activities that dominated the Bush drug-control budget, or reallocates resources to domestic treatment and prevention efforts.
Looking ahead, the final Bush drug strategy takes one last swipe at the boogeyman of “well-funded legalization advocates” that ONDCP claims are threatening the international consensus that “illicit drug abuse has significant social and health consequences which require strict regulation.” The document commends the work of delegates to the September 2008 inaugural World Forum Against Drugs, who “announced their intention to create a permanent organization to combat drug-legalization efforts around the world.”
It's doubtful that the Obama administration — which already has embraced harm-reduction tactics like needle exchange — will take such a strident view of drug-policy reformers, although legalization advocates are unlikely to get the open-door invitation some may have hoped for.
The extent to which Obama diverges from the Bush approach to the drug war should become clearer when he names his own “drug czar” to take over as ONDCP director. Meanwhile, we're left with a caretaker interim ONDCP director and a strategy document that's likely bound for a short trip to the circular file of history.