Obama Supports a 'Public Health' Approach to Drugs, but Only in Theory


At a "town hall" event in Maryland last Friday, President Obama reaffirmed his support for a "public health" approach to illegal drugs while reiterating his opposition to "decriminalization." A graduate student asked him about replacing "the war on drugs" with "a more sophisticated and cost-effective program of rehabilitation such as the one in Portugal." Here is Obama's response:

I have stated repeatedly—and it's actually reflected in our most recent statement by our office of drug policy—that we need to have an approach that emphasizes prevention, treatment, a public health model for reducing drug use in our country. We've got to put more resources into that. We can't simply focus on interdiction because, frankly, no matter how good of a job we're doing when it comes to an interdiction approach, if there is high demand in this country for drugs, we are going to continue to see not only drug use but also the violence associated with the drug trade….

Just to make sure that I'm actually answering your question, am I willing to pursue a decriminalization strategy as an approach? No.

Let's overlook the gap between Obama's "public health" rhetoric and his drug control budgets, which are quite similar to his predecessor's (but bigger). Let's also forget that Obama once advocated marijuana decriminalization, then turned against it, then denied he had flip-flopped, and then reversed himself again. A charitable observer might surmise that Obama still does not think pot smokers should be arrested but is worried that the term decriminalization could be given a broader meaning. In this case, however, Obama's interlocutor asked him specifically about Portugal's decade-old policy, which does not treat drug users as criminals but instead pushes addicts into treatment through an administrative process. Although police do not arrest people for possession of small quantities, drug production and distribution remain illegal, and users receive "counseling." It is, in short, "an approach that emphasizes prevention, treatment, a public health model for reducing drug use." If Obama is against that policy, it is because he thinks drug users should be treated like criminals, either because they deserve it, because only the threat of jail will get them into treatment, or because punishing them will deter other potential addicts. He could try to defend that policy on one or more of those grounds. Instead he just keeps saying "public health" in the hope that it will disguise the intolerance and brutality of the war on drugs. 

[Thanks to Richard Cowan for the tip.]