Obama calls for decriminalization of drug use

The most important thing we can do is to reduce demand for drugs. And the only way that we reduce demand is if we’re providing treatment and thinking about this as a public health problem and not just a criminal problem.”

— Barack Obama, President of the United States

The final four days of March marked the 5th annual National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit. U.S. President Barack Obama was one of many presenters covering topics of narcotic abuse, recovery and prohibition. During his panel, he argued that drug abuse was not a criminal issue and should not be treated as such.

“The most important thing we can do is to reduce demand for drugs,” said Obama. “And the only way that we reduce demand is if we’re providing treatment and thinking about this as a public health problem and not just a criminal problem.”

Within the past year, the president has taken action to ensure appropriate use of prescription medicine and increase funding for drug abuse treatment. In last month’s panel, he discussed pending changes to Medicare and Medicaid policies to treat mental health issues with the same sense of urgency as physical issues.

In Greensboro, there are several program options for drug or alcohol addicts seeking recovery.

Alcohol & Drug Services is a non-profit organization with several locations throughout North Carolina. Their outpatient treatment programs are partially covered through Medicaid, state funding and some insurance policies. However, full or even partial funding is no guarantee, which often leaves struggling addicts at a loss.

Many drug users end up in 12-step programs and halfway houses as an alternative to more expensive forms of treatment.

Twelve-step recovery appears successful for some, but results are unfounded and require an initiative that not all recovery-seeking addicts have. Halfway houses still require rent and sometimes further donations, plus there are spatial constraints that limit admission.

While financial restrictions do hinder treatment availability, social stigma may play an even larger role. Historically, drug abuse “was seen as a character flaw … affecting the poor and minorities,” according to Obama at the summit.

It is often people of marginalized socioeconomic, racial or ethnic backgrounds who face the most prejudice when it comes to addiction. Statistics from the American Civil Liberties Union show that while drug use in America is consistent between races, drug arrest rates are highest among people of color.

They reported, “on average, a black person is 3.73 times more likely to get arrested for marijuana possession than a white person.”

There are people who never have the opportunity to seek treatment because they end up incarcerated. It is situations like this that have encouraged activist organizations to fight for drug reform.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws has three chapters in North Carolina. Their efforts include reducing marijuana-related stigma, encouraging responsible use and informing the public on differences between cannabis and other drugs.

Marijuana is categorized as a Schedule 1 drug, just like heroin and a host of other substances. However, NORML states, “marijuana is nontoxic and cannot cause death by overdose.”

While some groups are in favor of drug-specific reform, others, such as the Students for Sensible Drug Policy, prefer more extensive legalization, regardless of whether a substance has potential for addiction either physically or mentally. Guilford now has its own chapter, led by junior Chris Honein.

“The belief shared by SSDP is that all drugs need to be on a baseline decriminalized,” said Honein. “Incarceration … turns petty offenders into criminals in our broken prison system.“

He believes in safe drug access, addiction treatment and honest education.

There is currently one Harm Reduction Coalition Center in Greensboro where injection drug users can access clean syringes. Programs like these help reduce rates of HIV/AIDS and provide addiction support.

Obama has been encouraging further education and awareness efforts.

“We have to make sure that our medical community, that our scientific community, that individuals — all of us are working together in order to address this problem,” he said.

Part of Obama’s plan is to treat underlying roots of abuse or addiction on an individual level. His shift from criminality to health advocacy is a step towards sensible drug policy.

“Certainly Obama has made headway,” said Honein, “It is, of course, so far short of what I would like to see happen.”

It is unclear whether legalization is on the horizon, but one thing is sure: the war on drugs will be taking a different course as policy makers revise how they address drug offenses in the future.