April 24, 2013 -- Drug addiction is a health problem, not a weakness of character.
That's the message that the Obama administration put forth today with its new drug strategy.
But if you're expecting an end to the drug war, these policy changes aren't it. The plan focuses on treating drug addiction as a health problem, but it doesn't tell law enforcement to stop arresting drug users.
One of the biggest points stressed in the outline is that, for the first time ever, insurance companies will be required to cover treatment for people with substance abuse disorders, the same way they would need to insure people with other chronic diseases, like diabetes or cancer. That change is part of the Affordable Care Act, and will go into effect in less than a year.
Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, rolled out the new policy at John Hopkins University on Wednesday morning.
"I've spent my entire career in law enforcement," Kerlikowske said in prepared remarks. "For most of those 37 years, like most people, I believed that a person addicted to drugs had a moral problem -- a failing, a lack of will."
"I was wrong. Addiction is not a moral failing."
The new drug strategy is part of an evolving shift in tone from the Obama administration, which is now looking to health professionals for guidance on prevention and treatment.
Still, that doesn't mean that enforcement of drug laws will stop. The plan does aim to steer people arrested for nonviolent drug crimes into treatment programs, as opposed to incarceration. But the president isn't telling law enforcement to stop arresting users.
Bill Piper, the director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for drug policy reform, said that the White House is being hypocritical.
"The Obama administration continues to say that drug use should be treated as a health issue, but at the same time they continue to treat drug use through the criminal justice system," he said. "So their actions don't match their rhetoric."
The Office of National Drug Control Policy doesn't have any authority to change drug laws, but Kerlikowske, the director, or what is commonly known as the "drug czar," could use his bully pulpit to call for an end to criminal prosecutions of drug users, Piper said.
"Drug use is a health issue and I know of no other health issue where people get arrested if they don't get better."