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The death of Kelly Thomas and the ongoing trial has been grounded in the stigmas that surround both mental illness and substance abuse. As the defense attorneys continue to blame Kelly for his own demise this week, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) held a summit to once again reiterate that our drug policy should be rooted in neuroscience, rather than just political science.
At the summit Dr. John Kelly, a Harvard researcher and psychiatrist, noted the stigma that surrounds drug addiction, which includes blaming the abuser. He rightly posited that the way we discuss such issues is partially to blame for the lack of progress in truly helping those that battle substance abuse (and I would include those with mental illness as well). He suggested that:
“We need to adopt new language which is more consistent with a public health approach, more accurate…as opposed to the rhetoric and language of the past — the abuse terminology, which is more strongly associated with a war on drugs approach.”
Although I agree with that, I must also point out that it’s not just simply changing the language that will fix our broken drug policy. We also need to address the many funding mechanisms that continue to incentivize focusing the majority of government public safety expenditures on supply-side narcotics enforcement. In other media outlets I have written about how “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The continued emphasis on changing language by the ONDCP but not funding is reflective of the manipulation that the government uses to ensure that Americans believe that there is no drug war.
This fiscal year, as social programs were being cut across the country, the drug control budget increased $415 million to a total $25.6 billion. That included no decrease for enforcement efforts, and in fact increased the DEA budget by $40.9 million, ensuring spending on domestic enforcement is the highest it’s ever been, at $9.4 billion. Other budget increases included Bureau of Prisons spending that incorporated a $120 million dollar increase for the 51% of federal inmates serving time for drug offenses. As a fellow Law Enforcement Against Prohibition speaker pointed out, on a positive note [read sarcasm here] we should acknowledge the 4.6% increase in funding to treatment programs. Although laudable, the lack of emphasis on effective demand reduction programs and an over-reliance on enforcement only strategies does not address the systemic failures of our policy on public health.
No matter how much money we throw at attempting to achieve the impossible dream of a “drug-free America,” all the current metrics provided by our government clearly show that we have failed. No matter how many arrests, convictions, drugs and money seized, the purity level of drugs is at an all time high, the price is at an all time low, and America continues to lead the world with the highest rate of incarceration, illicit drug use and now prescription opioid deaths. Clearly the conversation surrounding the drug war has changed yet from where I sit; it’s still just smoke and mirrors to me.