TIME White House

Obama’s New Drug Policy Looks a Lot Like the Old One

Michael Botticelli
Michael Botticelli, left, acting director of National Drug Control Policy, speaks to community leaders in Roanoke, Va., on July 9, 2014 Erica Yoon—AP

A new emphasis on treatment and addiction, but no change on marijuana

The Obama Administration unveiled an updated drug policy Thursday, including a new emphasis on treatment and addiction programs and a push to curb abuse of heroin and prescription painkillers.

Michael Botticelli, the acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, framed the retooled strategy as a shift away from the punitive policies that have produced record incarceration rates.

“Our prisons and jails are already overcrowded with people who desperately need compassionate, evidence-based treatment for the disease of addiction—not a jail cell,” Botticelli said in a statement before an event in Roanoke, Va.

Among the elements of the plan are expanded access to drug education, treating drug addition as a health issue rather than a criminal one, and a push to divert nonviolent drug offenders into treatment rather than prisons. It promotes tackling the twin scourges of heroin and prescription opiates, whose abuse rates have climbed.

The Administration’s call for criminal-justice reform reflects widespread agreement, inside the White House and out, that the war on drugs has been a misbegotten failure. The Department of Justice has emphasized the need to overhaul its approach from being “tough on crime” to being “smart on crime.” The updated policy is a continuation of that strategy. “The plan we released today calls for reforming our criminal justice system to find alternatives to incarceration—and effective interventions across the entire system to get people the treatment they need.”

But for the most part, the Administration’s approach looks like more of the same. It outlines no changes to the White House’s approach to marijuana, a blow to legalization advocates in the same week that Washington state became the second to legalize the sale of cannibis to adults for recreational purposes.

Despite the President’s belief that pot is less harmful than alcohol, federal law still classifies it as a Schedule I drug on par with cocaine and ecstasy. Discrepancies between state and federal pot laws have blocked legitimate weed-business owners from accessing banks and left the threat of jail time looming over users, sellers and growers even in states where some form of the drug is now legal.

The new strategy calls the increasing perception that cannabis is relatively harmless—fed not only by state legalization efforts, but also perhaps the President’s own remarks to that effect—a “serious challenge” to drug reform efforts.

“The drug czar’s office is still tone deaf when it comes to marijuana policy,” said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. “Why stay the course when the current policy has utterly failed to accomplish its goals?”

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