Drug Policy

Drug Policy in the United States

The economic costs of drug use are enormous: In 2007 alone, illicit drug use cost our Nation more than $193 billion in lost productivity, healthcare, and criminal justice costs. But the human costs are worse. In the United States,
drug-induced overdose deaths now surpass homicides and car crash deaths in America.

The Science

Throughout much of the last century, scientists studying drug abuse labored in the shadows of powerful myths and misconceptions about the nature of addiction. When science began to study addictive behavior in the 1930s, people addicted to drugs were thought to be morally flawed and lacking in willpower. Those views shaped society’s responses to drug abuse, treating it as a moral failing rather than a health problem, which led to an emphasis on punitive rather than preventative and therapeutic responses.

Even now, discussion of substance use disorders is too often relegated to the shadows, steeped in stigma and misunderstanding.

Today, thanks to significant advances in neuroscience, our Nation’s responses to drug abuse have begun to change. Groundbreaking discoveries about the brain have revolutionized our understanding of drug addiction, enabling us to respond more effectively to the problem.

“This issue touches every family and every community in one way or another. There are millions of Americans – including myself – who are in successful long-term recovery from a substance use disorder. This policy supports each and every one of us and demonstrates a real commitment to a smarter, more humane approach to drug policy in the 21st century.” (Michael Botticelli, Acting Director, National Drug Control Policy).

Science demonstrates that addiction is a disease of the brain—a disease that can be prevented and treated, and from which people can recover. The Administration’s drug policy reflects this understanding by emphasizing prevention and access to treatment over incarceration, pursing “smart on crime” rather than “tough on crime” approaches to drug-related offenses, and support for early health interventions designed to break the cycle of drug use, crime, incarceration, and re-arrest.

While law enforcement will always play a vital role in protecting our communities from drug-related crime and violence, we simply cannot incarcerate our way out of the drug problem. Put simply, an enforcement-centric “war on drugs” approach to drug policy is counterproductive, inefficient, and costly. At the other extreme, drug legalization also runs counter to a public health and safety approach to drug policy. The more Americans use drugs, the higher the health, safety, productivity, and criminal justice costs we all have to bear.

The Obama Administration’s 21st century drug policy plan provides an evidence based alternative to these approaches. Here’s how it works.

  • Emphasizing prevention over incarceration. Preventing drug use before it begins— particularly among young people— is the most cost-effective way to reduce drug use and its consequences. In fact, recent research has concluded that every dollar invested in school-based substance use prevention programs has the potential to save up to $18 in costs related to substance use disorders.
  • Promoting the expansion of national and community-based programs—such as the Drug Free Communities Support Program—that reach young people in schools, on college campuses, and in the workplace with tailored information designed to help them make healthy decisions about their future. But prevention alone isn’t enough.
  • Training health care professionals to intervene early before addiction develops. Early detection and treatment of a substance use problem by a doctor, nurse, or other health care professional is much more effective and less costly than dealing with the consequences of addiction or criminal justice involvement later on. Therefore, the Administration’s plan works to expand programs that train health care professionals to identify and treat problematic drug use before the condition becomes chronic. By supporting programs like Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment, we can promote healthy lifestyles, prevent addictive disorders from taking hold, and reduce the number of people entering the criminal justice system. For too many, however, drug use has progressed to the point of a disorder and requires treatment.
  • Expanding access to treatment. Today, about 22 million Americans need treatment for a substance use disorder, and yet only 2 million—about 1-in-10—actually receive the treatment they need. This is unacceptable. Research shows that addiction is a disease from which people can recover. In fact, success rates for treating addictive disorders are roughly on par with recovery rates for other chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma, and hypertension.
  • Through the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies will be required to cover treatment for addiction just as they would cover any other chronic disease. We estimate that with the Affordable Care Act, 62.5 million people will receive expanded substance abuse benefits by 2020, with 32.1 million gaining those benefits for the first time. To support this expansion, the President’s FY 2014 Budget includes an increase of $1.4 billion for treatment over the FY 2012 amount, the largest such request for treatment funding in decades.
  • Taking a “smart on crime” approach to drug enforcement. Drugs and crime are often linked, which is why addressing serious drug related crime and violence will always be a vital component of our plan to protect public health and safety in America. But at the end of the day, we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem. The Obama Administration has made clear we will not focus limited Federal drug enforcement resources on individual drug users. Instead, our drug policy emphasizes the expansion of innovative “smart on crime” strategies proven to help break the cycle of drug use, crime, arrest, and incarceration.
  • In relation to the above, it is needed a substantial reforms to the Nation’s criminal justice system to lower incarceration rates and reduce recidivism while protecting public safety: Reforms like the expansion of specialized courts that divert non-violent drug offenders into treatment instead of prison. Reforms like smart diversion programs that identify first time offenders who have a substance use disorder and provide community health services instead of a jail cell or arrest record. Reforms like reentry programs, which help guide former offenders back into society, support their recovery from addiction, and help them avoid a return to the criminal justice system.
  • Helping recovery. Millions of Americans successfully make the journey from addiction to recovery. Yet too often, these Americans face barriers to maintaining their sobriety, including a lack of access to housing, employment, or even getting a driver’s license or student loan.
  • In support of the roughly 23 million Americans in recovery today, the President’s plan seeks to eliminate legislative and regulatory barriers facing Americans who have made the successful journey from addiction to sobriety. As part of this effort, the Obama Administration has, for the first time, established a Recovery Branch at the Office of National Drug Control Policy to support Americans in recovery and help lift the stigma associated with addiction.

Principles of Modern Drug Policy

The three United Nations drug control conventions are the foundation of the global effort to reduce drug use and its consequences.  To implement the conventions in the 21st century, the United States commits itself to the following principles and encourages other nations to do the same:

  1. Ensure Balanced, Compassionate, and Humane Drug Policies. Modern drug policies must acknowledge that drug addiction is a chronic disease of the brain that can be prevented and treated.  Public health and public safety initiatives are complementary and equally vital to achieving reductions in drug use and its consequences.   The drug policy challenge facing the world today is not a choice between an enforcement-only “war on drugs” on the one hand and the extreme notion of drug legalization on the other.  Rather, the challenge lies in combining cost-effective, evidence-based approaches that protect public health and safety.
  2. Integrate Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery Support Services into Public Health Systems. Public health approaches, such as evidenced-based prevention, screening and brief interventions in healthcare settings, drug treatment programs, and recovery support services, are vital components of an effective drug control strategy.  There is overwhelming scientific evidence that drug prevention, treatment, and recovery services are cost-effective ways to reduce drug use and its consequences.
  3. Protect Human Rights. Respect for human rights is an integral part of drug policy.  Citizens, especially children, have the right to be safe from illegal drug use and associated crime, violence, and other consequences—whether in their family or the community.  Drug-involved offenders who have contact with the criminal justice system deserve to be supervised with respect for their basic human rights and be provided with services to treat their underlying substance use disorder.
  4. Reduce Drug Use to Reduce Drug Consequences. The best way to reduce the substantial harms associated with drugs is to reduce drug use itself.  Public health services for individuals who use drugs, including HIV interventions for people who inject drugs, should be implemented in the context of comprehensive, recovery-oriented public health systems that also provide drug users access to treatment for addiction.  Policies and programs such as injection rooms, drug distribution efforts, and drug legalization should be opposed because they tolerate drug use and allow the debilitating disease of addiction to continue untreated.
  5. Support and Expand Access to Medication-Assisted Therapies. Recent innovations in medication-assisted therapies have demonstrated increasing effectiveness in reducing drug use and its consequences.  These medications should be further studied to identify new therapies and best practices in program implementation.
  6. Reform Criminal Justice Systems to Support both Public Health and Public Safety. Criminal justice systems play a vital role in breaking the cycle of drug use, crime, incarceration, and re-arrest.  While individuals should be held responsible for breaking the law, the criminal justice system should help bring them into contact with treatment services if they are suffering from a substance use disorder.  This includes providing treatment services in correctional facilities, providing alternatives to incarceration such as drug courts for non-violent drug-involved offenders, and using monitoring, drug testing, and other means to ensure recovery from illegal drug use.
  7. Disrupt Drug Trafficking. Transnational criminal organizations should be targeted with a focus on the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of drug traffickers, the seizure of illegal assets, disruption of drug production networks, control of precursor chemicals, and the eradication of illegal drug crops.  International cooperation on information exchange, extradition, and training and technical assistance should be strengthened to eliminate safe harbors for transnational criminal organizations.
  8. Address the Drug Problem as a Shared Responsibility. Drug use, production, and trafficking are increasingly globalized problems and pose challenges to all of our nations.  Because of the global nature of today’s drug markets, international cooperation is essential to protect public health and safety.
  9. Support the UN Drug Conventions: The three UN Drug Conventions are the foundation of our global drug control efforts and are effective in their current form.  Efforts to renegotiate the Conventions should be opposed.
  10. Protect Citizens from Drugs:Drugs are illegal because their use is dangerous not only to users but to society as a whole.  We are committed to protecting all citizens, including those in recovery, from the tragic consequences of illegal drug use.

Drug Policy in the Criminal Justice System

This section covers the topics below related with Drug Policy :





See Also

  • Drugs
  • Policy

Drug Policy: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Drug Policy. This part provides references, in relation to Drug Policy, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Drug Policy by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Drug Policy and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Drug Policy or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Drug Policy and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Drug Policy. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Drug Policy should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Drug Policy when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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