Obama’s drug czar visits with Southland clergy leaders, pushes White House drug strategy

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President Obama’s drug czar is pushing a new national strategy for dealing with illegal substance abuse — one that's heavy on treatment, and a little lighter on criminal penalties.

The White House calls it a drug policy for the 21st century: a plan that uses scientific research to emphasize drug addiction as a preventable, treatable disease.

Gil Kerlikowske, president of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, describes it as "removing the stigma of addiction and letting people be able to return back to their families as essentially model citizens."

Kerlikowske met with clergy members for a news conference at the First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles, where he described the plan and pointed out that harsh sentences disproportionately affect African-Americans and Latinos.

“We know there has been a disparate impact on the drug problem," he says. "Not only victimization but also on arrests. [...] As my old colleagues used to say, we can’t arrest our way out of this situation.”

The outreach effort is also focused on prescription drug abuse, which health leaders say has become an epidemic.

“Prescription drugs take more lives in this country than heroin or cocaine overdoses combined," according to Kerlikowske.

The Obama administration has doled out over $300 million to hundreds of community coalitions for drug prevention programs. Overall, it’s allocated more than $30 billion in federal funds over the last several years for education and treatment.

"Over the past three decades, we have reduced illegal drug use in America. Over the long term, rates of drug use among young people today are far lower than they were 30 years ago," said Kerlikowske in a statement on the Office of National Drug Control Policy website.

"There is overwhelming evidence that drug prevention and treatment programs achieve meaningful results with significant long-term cost savings."

This story has been updated.

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