needle_exchange_kit.jpg U.S. policy on drugs is as close to center stage as it has been probably since ten years ago, when Plan Colombia was first debated in Congress. This is mostly due to the rising levels of violence in Mexico, with over 6,000 people murdered last year in drug-related killings, and the crossing of this violence into the United States’ southwestern states. Last month a grenade was thrown at a bar in Texas where two off-duty police officers were customers. Now within two weeks various subcommittees in Congress are holding seven separate hearings on drug-related violence in Mexico and the U.S. southern border. Joint Chiefs of Staff Commander Mullen visited Mexico in early March, and Secretary of State Clinton will pay a visit next week. This is a lot of attention, especially at a time when policymakers are dealing with a global financial crisis.

Many of the discussions on the issue are about how to deal with the latest symptoms of the drug war specifically. For example, some have been requesting that President Obama send the National Guard to the border. Others have been asking the administration to do something to stop the flow of U.S. guns south to Mexico. While these types of strategies could stem the violence temporarily or limit it geographically, will we actually see a change in policy that would reduce demand for drugs in the U.S. and actually hurt the cartels’ income sheets?

The developments on actual drug policy have been somewhat divorced from the discussions on Mexico. The announcement of Seattle police chief Kerlikowske as drug czar last week, because of his track record and the words said at the announcement, implies there will be a significant change in the way the United States conducts drug policy. Vice-President Biden announced the choice saying that the United States needs “a balanced approach in combating drugs, one that includes prevention, treatment and enforcement.” Kerlikowske said that “For too long we have operated… in silence when it comes to making our country drug-free and reducing the demand for drugs… The president and the vice president have set a new course…” The words “war on drugs” were not uttered.

Meanwhile in Vienna at the UN drug strategy conference David Johnson, assistant secretary of state in charge of narcotics, said the U.S. would implement a different strategy to reduce the harm associated with drug abuse, such as needle-exchange programs, which the United States has traditionally been opposed to. This conference is important, as it takes place only every 10 years and symbolizes a rare opportunity to change the course of antinarcotics strategies worldwide.

However, the declaration that will be signed later this week by member stated supposedly does not go as far as to propose a new strategy because it was negotiated by the U.S. while still under the past administration. There have been reports that the declaration will not include language such as “harm reduction” because of U.S. opposition. We will find out more about this later on in the week, but if true, it would represent a wasted opportunity.

Whether the change in U.S. policy is more than rhetoric will be revealed in future budget allocations. When George W. Bush came into office treatment was 26% and prevention 19% of the $10 billion drug control spending budget. By 2009 the budget increased to $13 billion, the percentage devoted to treatment remained at 26%, and the budget for prevention dropped to 14%. While the interdiction budget grew by 100% during the Bush administration, the prevention budget shrunk by almost 25%. If the Obama administration is serious about tackling the drug abuse issue from both the supply and demand side it will have to begin by changing where the money goes.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Todd Huffman under a Creative Commons license.