White House: Stop Calling People Addicts

Drug czar’s office promises monitoring of pot legalization states, displeases activists.

Michael Botticelli, the acting "drug czar," is emphasizing treatment of drug abuse, but his office's new strategy plan doesn't go far enough for drug reform activists.

Michael Botticelli, the acting "drug czar," is emphasizing treatment of drug abuse, but his office's new strategy plan doesn't go far enough for drug reform activists. 

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The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy released its 2014 National Drug Control Strategy on Wednesday, encouraging a softening of labels for people who abuse drugs and the expansion of local drug court programs.

National Drug Control Policy Acting Director Michael Botticelli, the current “drug czar,” unveiled the document at an event in Roanoke, Virginia. Botticelli said he personally struggled with substance abuse, informing his approach to policy.

The White House plan, transmitted to Congress with a cover letter from President Barack Obama, devotes significant attention to deterring drug use among teens and to stamping out illegal drug smuggling. But it also urges treatment and reducing the stigma associated with drug abuse.

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“Substance use disorders are medical conditions, and reducing the stigma surrounding these medical conditions is a particularly important component of drug policy reform – one in which every American can play a part,” the document says.

How can you help? By avoiding common labels for drug abusers, the anti-drug office says.

“Research demonstrates that the use of stigmatizing words like ‘addict’ can discourage individuals from seeking help. Additionally, using such terms reinforces the idea that someone with a substance use disorder is exhibiting a willful choice rather than suffering from a recognized medical condition,” the document says.

“Researchers also note that identifying an individual with a substance use disorder as a 'substance abuser' evokes less sympathy than if the individual is described as having a diseases," it adds. "Avoiding these terms – and thereby reducing the stigma faced by those with substance use disorders – can play an important role in encouraging these individuals to seek help at an earlier stage in the disease.”

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Despite urging a gentler tone on drug use, the document didn't please drug reform activists. 

“The administration says drug use is a health issue but then advocates for policies that put people in the criminal justice system,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement. “Until the drug czar says it is time to stop arresting people for drug use, he is not treating drug use as a health issue no matter what he says. I know of no other health issue in which people are thrown in jail if they don’t get better.”

The anti-drug office, established in 1989, is commonly viewed alongside the Drug Enforcement Administration by activists as one of the most intransigent parts of the Obama administration, which has moved to avoid mandatory minimum drug penalties and decided in August not to challenge Colorado and Washington state laws that authorize regulated recreational marijuana markets.

The annual policy plan does take a swipe at marijuana legalization – and hints the office is keeping a close eye on developments that may warrant federal intervention.

[READ: Washington State's First Pot Stores Open]

The White House drug policy office says "the declining perceptions of harm – and associated increases in use – of marijuana among young people … have gained prominence with the passage of state ballot initiatives in 2012 legalizing marijuana in the states of Colorado and Washington. In August [the Justice Department] released guidance reiterating that marijuana remains illegal under Federal law and that Federal law enforcement activities in these two states would continue to be guided by eight priorities focused on protecting public health and safety. [We are] working with DOJ and other Federal partners to monitor the implementation of these state laws and the public health and safety consequences related to these eight priorities.”

The document doesn't provide a footnote for its assertion that marijuana use increased among young people. The latest findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's biannual Youth Risk Behavior Study, released in June, found a statistically stagnant marijuana use rate among U.S. high school students from 2011 to 2013.

Mason Tvert, communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project, says "they seem to be giving a lot of weight to non-statistically significant changes."

Tvert also says it's ironic the drug policy office is upset about declining perceptions of harm, pointing to Obama's January statement to The New Yorker that he believes smoking marijuana is less harmful than drinking alcohol.

"It's pretty insane that they find it problematic that people are beginning to have a more evidence-based opinion regarding the potential harms of marijuana," Tvert says. "They seem to think it'd be preferable that people think marijuana is more dangerous than it actually is."