Federal drug policy officials in recent years have done everything they can to send the message that they have a balanced, health-focused strategy that acknowledges drug abuse is a medical problem we can’t arrest our way out of. While Obama administration officials often use fuzzy math or artful language to obscure the fact that most federal drug control funding actually still goes toward failed strategies like arrests, incarceration and overseas interdiction, they rarely lie outright.
But Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), did just that at a Congressional hearing on Wednesday.
“The vast majority of the resources that ONDCP and the federal government looks at are really for enhanced prevention and treatment programs,” he said in testimony during a U.S. House hearing on reauthorizing his agency.
Just one problem: Prevention and treatment only comprise less than half of the federal drug war spending that is certified by Botticelli’s office.
According to the chart above, which is part of the National Drug Control Strategy that ONDCP released last month, treatment and prevention programs only account for 44.8 percent of federal drug control spending under the president’s proposed Fiscal Year 2016 budget. This year’s actual drug policy spending only devotes 43.9 percent of funds to the health strategies.
That’s not a majority and it’s certainly not the “vast majority” Botticelli claimed in the hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on Government Operations.
Despite the administration’s health-focused rhetoric, the Obama White House continues to oversee a federal budget that devotes far more resources to failed drug war approached like arrests, incarceration and chopping down drug crops than to effective strategies like treatment and prevention.
No matter how many times federal officials admit that we can’t arrest our way out of the drug problem, the fact is that police still made 1,561,231 drug arrests in the U.S. in 2014. Of those, 83.1 percent were for possession alone. Many of those arrests were funded by federal grant programs that incentivize local police departments to make as many drug busts as possible.
So the drug czar can say in a Congressional hearing that “the federal government and the Department of Justice has issued guidance saying that we are not going to be using our limited federal resources to focus on low-level folks who are using this for largely personal use.”
And he can submit written testimony claiming that his office oversees a “21st century plan that outlines a series of evidence-based reforms that treat our Nation’s drug problem as a public health challenge, not just a criminal justice issue.”
But those words mean very little to the people who are caught up in the thousands of drug possession arrests that still occur in this country on a daily basis.
If Botticelli and President Obama really want to enact a health-focused strategy, they should match the rhetoric with real dollars and stop paying cops to put people in handcuffs and jail cells for what almost everyone knows is a personal health issue that shouldn’t be treated like a crime.