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Former Obama administration advisor Kevin Sabet weighs the pros and cons of America's drug strategy.
BOSTON — At a time of growing frustration with the US government's hawkish and expensive drug strategy, Dr. Kevin A. Sabet remains an outspoken proponent of prohibition.
From 2009-2011, Sabet served as the senior advisor to Gil Kerlikowske, President Obama's director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). He was one of three main authors of President Obama’s first drug control strategy. He also served as an ONDCP political appointee in both President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush's administrations.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GlobalPost: At a time when many people — including heads of state — are calling for an end to the drug war, why is it important that we continue the fight.
Kevin Sabet: Well, I think it's important that we get specific about our policies and about our objectives. One phrase that I think has lost its relevance is 'the war on drugs.' Whenever I hear somebody talking about a war on drugs, I really ask first ' well what do we mean by the war on drugs?' I haven't heard anybody use it in the positive.
If you mean the status quo, I think it is time to analyze what has worked, what hasn’t worked, and what we need to do to get better results. Drug policy is not unique in that the trends attached to this issue are constantly evolving. That means you do need an evolving policy. The question is, what does that evolving policy look like, and is it better compared to what we have going on now?
A lot of folks use the term "alternative" to really hide behind things that are much more radical than they would even immediately let on. "Alternative" could mean increased treatment, which might be radical in one country, but it could also mean legalization, which I think would be radical in any country. I do think it’s time to look at drug policy. You can be against legalization but in favor of change, but unfortunately in today’s world that nuance has been completely lost.
Many people say that prohibition is failing: We’re spending upward of $40 billion a year and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people — yet drugs are cheaper and more available than ever. Why is this?
The question is, failing compared to what? Actually drugs are not cheaper and more available than ever now. Drugs are also used by far fewer percentage of the population than they were just 30 or 40 years ago in the United States. [Editor's note: prior month usage among teens has fallen from greater than 30 percent from 1975 to 1980 to less than 25 percent today].
One of the biggest myths is we are simply incarcerating otherwise innocent people who are using drugs. There are about a million and a half people arrested for drugs every year. People need to understand that when somebody is arrested for a drug offense there are usually a lot of other things going on beyond the scope of drug addiction.
These kinds of things have to be tackled if we’re actually going to get any progress. You really have to look at this in the totality of the circumstances, for a lot of people drugs are a symptom of other things going on in their lives.
Studies find that there is very little difference in cannabis use between states where marijuana is criminalized vs. decriminalized. Is this evidence that a strict law enforcement approach is not working?
No, it’s evidence that the word decriminalization means nothing today.
The most robust studies done on states with formal decriminalization laws have basically shown that there is no distinction in terms of police activity, arrests, and jail. So the question is flawed. I really blame the discourse, which devolves into sound bites, talking points and bumper sticker slogans.
The word decriminalization has actually lost its meaning entirely because most journalists and advocates mistakenly substitute decriminalization with legalization. As I said, the decrim states don’t even have differences in their actual enforcement. The evidence is actually very mixed, and it doesn’t really tell us much.
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