As the federal government shifts its drug control strategy toward drug treatment and education initiatives, the U.S. drug czar said Wednesday at an event in Baltimore that he plans to emphasize the expansion of drug courts to divert nonviolent offenders to treatment instead of prison.
Gil Kerlikowske, director of national drug control policy, announced the changes at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine as he laid out his goals for the year. The former Seattle police chief said there would be no official change in the federal stance that marijuana is an illegal and harmful drug, a hot issue since two states voted to allow its use last year.
Maryland has debated decriminalizing marijuana, though a measure to do so failed in the General Assembly this year. In Baltimore, prosecutors have used marijuana diversion programs that often run through "early resolution court," allowing hundreds of people to perform community service and avoid conviction.
Kerlikowske said his office would support a broad effort to make health care a larger part of the solution to drug issues. "We've relied far too long on the criminal justice system," he said Wednesday.
The new policy will emphasize prevention programs at schools, as well early intervention by health care professionals. Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies will cover treatment costs associated with substance abuse.
Kerlikowske, who has worked in law enforcement for 37 years, said he often struggled to understand why users would continue their drug abuse.
"I couldn't figure out why they didn't change," he said of drug abusers. "I really didn't have the understanding that science brings."
He said the new policies will help people with drug abuse issues get the treatment they need from public-health professionals.
Kerlikowske was joined at the announcement by Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts and Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Batts said since coming to Baltimore he's wanted to address the larger issue of why heroin has become the drug of choice.
"We have to do policing in a smarter way," Batts said, adding he hopes to lean on Hopkins on how to address the issue in Baltimore.
Volkow said one issue with drug use is that is often stigmatized, yet research has shown that addiction is similar to a chronic disease that can be treated.
The Obama administration has requested more than $10.7 billion for education programs and drug treatment for those substance abuse disorders, according to the drug policy office. The president's budget includes a $1.4 billion increase over 2012 for drug treatment.