The US Drug Policy Development

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During a long period of time, the US government tried to develop an effective drug policy which could respond to the expectations of the state authorities, specialists in the health care and criminal justice spheres, and the American society. Thus, it is important to note that the drug policy issues provoked the active public debates during the decades, but still, there is no single idea on the effectiveness of this or that approach to developing the drug policy. The US government chooses not to reject the traditional prohibition strategy in spite of the fact that President Barack Obama focuses on reforming the drug policy while concentrating on prevention and treatment as the parts of the harm reduction approach (A 21st Century Drug Policy, 2014). That is why, the debates on the effectiveness of these two opposite approaches remain to be urgent. Although the US government supports the prohibition approach to resolving the drug policy debates and focuses on intensifying punitive measures as the next stage of the US War on Drugs, current trends in the drug policy’s development can also be discussed as flexible while referring to harm reduction and public health issues; thus, these trends are rather controversial because of accentuating different aspects of the problem, and they should be discussed as parts of the whole.

The Drug Policy Debates and the Traditional Approach

The current drug policy debates are developed round the discussion of such approaches to the drug policy in the United States as prohibition, harm reduction, medicalization, legalization, and decriminalization. If legalization and decriminalization are too provocative to be discussed as the alternatives to the national policy, prohibition as the traditional approach and the harm reduction approach as the current tendency are the main points for the discussion (McBride et al., 2009, p. 75). The current refusals of the US authorities to withdraw the traditional prohibition approach in relation to the discussion of the drug policies are described as the next step in the War on Drugs which was started in the 1980s (Robson, 2009, p. 233).

The US War on Drugs is based on the strong prohibition of possessing, distributing, and producing drugs. The researchers and authorities cannot find the answer about the effectiveness of the prohibition approach because the supporters of the policy points at the harm of illicit drugs which should be prohibited. On the contrary, critics look at the problem from the other perspective and state that the War on Drugs in the 1980s-1990s led to the increase in numbers of incarcerated persons and to the discrimination of the minorities because many African Americans and Latinos are traditionally discussed as drug users or dealers involved in criminal activities (Ruiz & Strain, 2011, p. 993).

The position of the US government in relation to the drug policy which is still followed in the country and the promoted position of President Obama are different in their basic approaches to resolving the problem because the current approach is discussed as the prohibition strategy and the proposed approach is related to the harm reduction strategy. Nevertheless, these approaches are also similar because both the strategies are focused on reformation of the current policies. The modern focus on the prohibition approach can be discussed as the next step in the US War on Drugs because the punitive measures are intensified. However, the authorities’ approaches to discuss the general issue of drug use and distribution are reformed to distinguish between drug production and delivery as the criminal activities and drug abuse as the health problem (Robson, 2009, p. 234). According to Hakim, Obama’s administration has taken several important steps toward the development of the policy approach “that regards drug use and addiction more as health concerns than as criminal activities, and shifts the emphasis from law enforcement toward prevention and treatment” (Hakim, 2011, p. 1). In spite of the obvious shift in approaches, the laws developed during the stage of the active focus on the prohibition approach are still used in the country.

The states actively reacted to the changes in official views, and began to reform their drug policies. Thus, “while prohibition has remained the official national position and the position of many states, evidence shows considerable variation in state policy overall and for specific substances” (McBride et al., 2009, p. 77). As a result, the traditional prohibition approach with the focus on punitive measures is also reformed under the impact of the general tendencies in the sphere. Although following the national strategy, states are inclined to propose their own vision of the ways to cope with the drug issue. Many states are inclined to implement the “regulatory and deterrent approach to specific drugs that appear to cause high levels of community harm”, but these policies, which reflect the national approach and orient to decreasing the drug use in the society, develop along with “a co-occurring increase in willingness to use harm reduction or medicalization approaches for specific drugs” (McBride et al., 2009, p. 78). From this point, the prohibition approach is actively reformed in the states to respond to the modern social tendencies, and this approach can be combined with the other alternative strategies.

The harm reduction approach with the focus on the medical use of some drugs is the most actively discussed alternative to the prohibition strategy because its aspects are reflected in President Obama’s course. The approach proposed by the President’s administration is discussed as the effective alternative because it “rejects the false choice between an enforcement-centric ‘war on drugs’ and drug legalization” (A 21st Century Drug Policy, 2014). The main focuses of the strategy are on prevention, expansion of the access to treatment, and the reformation of the “criminal justice system to break the cycle of drug use, crime, and incarceration while protecting public safety” (A 21st Century Drug Policy, 2014). If the accentuation of prevention and expansion of the access to treatment is associated with the harm reduction approach, the reformation of the criminal justice system is correlated with the provocative decriminalization approach. That is why, the proposed course is also the controversial topic for the drug policy debates.

Harm reduction as the current approach and tendency related to the drug policy is actively followed in many states. Nevertheless, this tendency is also considered as the first step to the possible drug legalization because the current version of the harm reduction approach combines the points discussed in the context of medicalization. Many US states raised the discussion of the drug policy as the issue related to the healthcare sphere because of legalizing marijuana for the medical use (Ruiz & Strain, 2011, p. 994). The traditional harm reduction approach means the focus on prevention education and treatment of the addicted persons. Nevertheless, today it is impossible to speak about the US government and state authorities’ focus on one concrete approach.

Thus, the current drug policy trends can be discussed as the combination of all the actively discussed approaches in order to find the most effective strategy. According to Weatherburn, the prohibition polices should be reformed because the current drug law enforcement does not contribute to the public security, and “street-level drug law enforcement, for example, can encourage more risky injection practices, with consequent risks to public health” (Weatherburn, 2002, p. 658). As a result, it is impossible to state whether intensified punitive measures or reformed approaches can contribute to reducing the drug activities. President Obama’s course is also the combination of two approaches which are the harm reduction and decriminalization. That is why, the public should be provided with the accurate information about drugs, and treatment should be chosen instead of incarceration. Moreover, states follow their own tendencies and vision of the effective drug policy because certain states can combine harm reduction approach with the medicalization approach (Ruiz & Strain, 2011, p. 993). From this point, the harm reduction approach is discussed as the most flexible position which can combine the elements of different approaches while focusing on the health care aspects important to reduce health consequences.

The combination of different elements while composing the drug policy is not only the current trend, but it is also the approach followed by the national and state authorities to reduce the drug use and to prevent the drug legalization along with the violation of the drug laws. That is why, today the drug policy is discussed in the context of social problems associated with the health and discrimination issues. The main goal of using the harm reduction approach is the decrease in drug use, delivery, and production. Thus, the drug policy should protect the public from the harmful effects of using drugs because it is the health problem. The next goal of the approach is the shift of the attention from drug addicted persons as criminals to drug addicted persons as ill people who need the effective treatment. As a result, the problem of the social abuse and discrimination can be resolved. However, Hakim pays attention to the fact that the harm reduction strategies in relation to the US drug policy are “currently the best available”, but they cannot respond to the variety of issues associated with the drug problem (Hakim, 2011, p. 6). That is why, the current focuses on combining many strategies seem to be rather rational in the situation when the official position is not supported by the majority.


The current drug policy trends typical for American society should be discussed as the attempts to answer the question about the most effective approach to use while determining the national and state drug policies. The US government does not reject the prohibition approach to resolving the active debates on the drug policy issue, but it is concentrating on implementing the reforms to the approach. This strategy can be discussed as the next step of the US War on Drugs, although Barack Obama proposes the strategy based on the harm reduction approach. As a result, many approaches are combined by the authorities in order to choose the most effective variant of the drug policy, and the results of these combinations can be observed as the current drug policy trends followed in states.


A 21st Century Drug Policy. (2014). Web.

Hakim, P. (2011). Rethinking US Drug Policy. Web.

McBride, D., Terry-McElrath, Y., Harwood, H., Inciardi, J., & Leukefeld, C. (2009). Reflections on drug policy. Journal of Drug Issues, 39(1), 71-88.

Robson, P. (2009). Forbidden drugs. USA: Oxford University Press.

Ruiz, P., & Strain, E. (2011). Lowinson and Ruiz’s substance abuse: A comprehensive textbook. USA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Weatherburn, D. (2002). Matching drug policy research to drug policy goals. Addiction, 97(1), 653-664.

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