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White House Announces Shift in Drug Control Policy

The Obama administration has released its first National Drug Control Strategy. In it, the president is making a major break with his predecessors with an increased focus on treatment and prevention. Critics say not much has changed aside from the terminology.

America's drug control policy has prioritized law enforcment since the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon said drugs were "public enemy number one." Since then, U.S. presidents have led what they called the War on Drugs.

But polls show that most Americans feel the war has been lost. And the Obama administration has dropped the name. The director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowski, explained the White House's strategy. "Calling it a war really limits your resources. Looking at this as both a public safety problem, and a public health problem seems to make a lot more sense," she said.

Kerlikowski said police across the country have grown frustrated with arresting drug users only to find they become repeat offenders.

He said the new strategy focuses more on community-based prevention and treatment programs and needle exchanges that try to lure drug abusers into treatment. Kerlikowski says it will reduce the rate of youth drug use by 15 percent over the next five years, while also tackling drugged driving, and drug-induced deaths, which have almost doubled in the last decade.

The new strategy suggests some similarities with those followed in other countries, where authorities focus on drug related crime and disease rather than on casual drug use. That strategy is known as harm reduction.

Kerlikowske said he doesn't like that name because it connotes decriminalization. "You know often times we get asked about well how do you talk about harm reduction here in the United States. We actually don't use that term. And we don't use that term for a very specific reason, and that is because it is so subject to everyone's own individual interpretation," he said.

Kerlikowski said legalization is a non-starter for the Obama admninistration. And he said the new strategy will intensify counterdrug law enforcement cooperation with other countries.

Advocates of drug policy reform say that while the terminology may be new, most of the budget is still spent on law enforcement. "As long as drug use is a crime, people are going to be afraid to seek treatment, they're going to be afraid to come out for health services, it's just not going to work," said Bill Piper, the national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

He says it's time to try alternative approaches.

Fourteen U.S. states have already tried one - legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. The next one considering doing that is the District of Columbia, the seat of the nation's capital.