BALTIMORE — The nation’s drug czar said Wednesday the legalization of marijuana in Washington state and Colorado won’t change his office’s mission of fighting the country’s drug problem by focusing on addiction treatment that will be available under the federal health overhaul.
Gil Kerlikowske, director of the National Drug Control Policy, released President Barack Obama’s 2013 strategy for fighting drug addiction Wednesday at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. The strategy includes a greater emphasis on using public health tools to battle addiction and diverting non-violent drug offenders into treatment instead of prisons.
“The legal issue of Washington and Colorado is really a question you have to go back to the Department of Justice,” Kerlikowske said when asked about the impact the two states would have on national drug policy.
The key to the administration’s efforts to deliver health care to drug addicts is in the federal health care overhaul because it will require insurance companies to cover treatment for substance abuse disorders, as they currently do for chronic diseases like diabetes. That change could lead to addiction treatment for several million more people.
“Treatment shouldn’t be a privilege limited to those who can afford it, but it’s a service available to all who need it,” Kerlikowske said.
The strategy outlined by Kerlikowske also supports a greater emphasis on criminal justice reforms that include drug courts and probation programs aimed at reducing incarceration rates. It also will include community-based policing programs designed to break the cycle of drug use, crime and incarceration while steering law enforcement resources to more serious offenses.
Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief, said addiction needs to be acknowledged as a disease that can be diagnosed and treated. He said the debate over the nation’s drug problem has become locked in a highly charged ideological debate in which there are no simple answers.
“We’re not going to solve it by drug legalization, and we’re certainly not in my career going to arrest our way out of this problem, either, and these two extreme approaches really aren’t guided by the experience, the compassion or the knowledge that’s needed,” Kerlikowske said.
Kerlikowske was joined by Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse; Anthony Batts, Baltimore’s police commissioner; and Dr. Eric Strain, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment and Research at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
Batts noted that Maryland lawmakers this year showed signs of becoming more lenient on laws relating to marijuana, and he expressed his opposition to leniency. The state Senate passed a bill to decriminalize the possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana, but the bill did not pass in the House of Delegates.
Batts said he views marijuana as a “starter drug.”
“I’m seeing more takeover robberies – people breaking into houses – surrounding marijuana, and it is dealing with younger people who are doing these takeover robberies that are resulting in murders, shootings and killings,” Batts said.