The US has long been known for its tough approach to drug use, with its prisons overcrowded with people arrested on drug-related matters.
However, there are now clear signs that the country's 'war on drugs' approach has ended.
US Director of the Office of Drug Control Policy Gil Kerlikowske has been in Australia this week for high-level meetings with government officials, drug policy advisors, researchers and advocates.
Kerlikowske's visit highlighted the significant shift in the US's drug policy approach which has occurred since his appointment by President Barak Obama in 2009. Kerilowske coordinates all aspects of US Federal drug control programs and implements the President's National Drug Control Strategy. His position is sometimes known as the 'US Drug Czar'.
At a forum hosted in Canberra yesterday by the Australian National Council on Drugs, he explained how much the US has moved from its traditional law enforcement focus to adopting a public health approach to drug problems.
When Obama was first elected, international drug and alcohol experts wondered whether his stated public-health approach to drugs would translate into reality. When he was appointed, Mr Kerlikowske called for an end to the term 'war on drugs'.
With the passing of time, it appears that rhetoric has begun to turn to reality.
In Canberra yesterday, Kerlikowske emphasised the importance of a partnership between public health approaches and public safety measures such as law enforcement. He listed a number of initiatives as evidence that the US had changed its policy approach to drug problems:
- The passing of the Fair Sentencing Act,reduces the disparity of mandatory term of imprisonment for a drug offences involving powder and crack cocaine – a situation that disproportionately affected minority populations.
- the growth to 2600 drug courts to divert offenders into treatment
- drug-free communities, a $370 billion program which funds 700 small community organisations to educate young people about the effects of drugs.
- $31 billion in funding for drug education and treatment programs.
- healthcare reform which will allow many people who have problems with drugs to seek help
- the National Prevention Strategy, which aims to prevent harms in a diverse range of areas including domestic violence and alcohol and other drugs.
- work to include substance use treatment within primary health care, rather than as an isolated treatment approach.
- the establishment of 27 programs targeting high-intensity drug trafficking areas, incorporating Federal, state and local governments.
- the HOPE project which works with former prisoners who fail the drug-testing conditions of their parole.
Kerlikowske noted that President Obama had also removed a ban on Federal funds being used for needle exchange programs, but that this had been overturned by Congress.
While the US has adopted a public health approach, Kerlikowske made it clear that the legalisation of illicit drugs was not on the agenda.
'Both the phrase "war on drugs" and the term "legalisation" are not helpful,' he said. 'Neither approach is humane, realistic or grounded in science. There is a growing policy recognition that drug problems are a public health issue. However, public debate is still polarised between a war and legalisation.'
Kerlikowske told the audience that he and his team had learnt much on this visit about Australia's approach to both drink and drug driving.
The address was televised live on ABC 24 Hour News.