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Obama shifts strategy away from war on drugs

Will now focus on prevention and treatment

By Sam Hananel
Associated Press / May 12, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Four decades after President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, the White House yesterday announced a shift in national drug policy that would treat illegal drug use more as a public health issue and plunge more resources into prevention and treatment.

The new drug control strategy boosts community-based antidrug programs, encourages health care providers to screen for drug problems before addiction sets in, and expands treatment beyond specialty centers to mainstream health care facilities.

President Obama called the plan a “balanced approach to confronting the complex challenge of drug use and its consequences.’’

His drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, was more blunt.

“Calling it a war really limits your resources,’’ Kerlikowske said. “Looking at this as both a public safety problem and a public health problem seems to make a lot more sense.’’

The plan — the first drug strategy unveiled by the Obama White House — calls for reducing the rate of youth drug use by 15 percent over the next five years and for similar reductions in chronic drug use, drug abuse deaths, and driving under the influence of drugs.

Kerlikowske criticized past drug strategies for measuring success by counting the number of children and teens who have not tried marijuana.

“Quite often the marijuana issue was front and center in almost all of the discussion, and yet we have seen a significant increase in drug overdose deaths mainly driven by prescription drugs,’’ Kerlikowske said.

The new policy encourages health care professionals to ask patients questions about drug use even during routine treatment so that early intervention is possible. It also helps more states set up electronic databases to identify the doctors who are over-prescribing addictive pain killers.

“Putting treatment into the primary health care discussion is critical,’’ Kerlikowske said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius pointed to research showing that people who reach their 21st birthday without developing an addiction are less likely to develop an addiction when they are older.

“The goal here is to prevent and treat substance abuse before it becomes life-threatening,’’ she said.

The policy shift follows several other drug policy reforms since Obama took office. Obama signed a measure repealing a two-decade old ban on the use of federal money for needle-exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV.

His administration also said it will not target medical marijuana patients or caregivers as long as they are complying with state laws and are not fronts for drug traffickers.