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America's new touchy-feely "war on drugs"

By Nick Carey

KALAMAZOO, Mich (Reuters) - In Stephen Gorsalitz's courtroom, you could be forgiven for thinking you've stumbled into a rehab clinic like the Betty Ford Center.

Gorsalitz patiently listens as defendant Eugenia Jensen tells him she has a steady job at a local restaurant and is working hard to regain custody of her 10-year-old daughter.

After Jensen, 38, announces that she has been drug free for seven months, the court bursts into warm applause.

"I am pleased with your progress," Gorsalitz says. "And I see you managed not to cry this time," he adds with a smile.

This is certainly not what U.S. President Richard Nixon had in mind when he declared a "War on Drugs" in 1971. But four decades and billions of dollars later, this war -- based on law enforcement and a crackdown on production, distribution and consumption -- has produced unspectacular results, at best.

So more and more states have been turning to alternative approaches like drug courts, which target consumption among probationers using a combination of frequent tests, the threat of jail time and plenty of moral encouragement.

And it seems to be working. Over the past 20 years drug courts have cut crime rates and proved far cheaper than prison. They are also expected to be part of a drug strategy report the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is due to issue in February.

"We're going to go with what works best," said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, more commonly called the Drug Czar. "That includes looking at solutions like drug courts."

The other notable shift taking place today centers on marijuana policy. At a time of soaring deficits, more states are seeking to decriminalize marijuana, at least in medical use. Today, more than a dozen states allow the sale of pot to the sick.

"The states are broke, the criminal justice systems in the states are overflowing with prisoners, as in California, and they cannot afford to keep on putting people in jail for drug possession," said drug policy expert Joe Domanick, Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College in New York. "They will still do it, but that is why Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested we at least discuss the legalization and taxation of marijuana in California."

But don't expect President Obama to join the push for legalization any time soon.

The administration has devoted fresh resources to curb violent traffickers from Mexico. Earlier this year both Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano stated their support for Mexican efforts to crush the nation's drug cartels and staunch overspill violence in the United States. That is a policy goal and unlikely to change.

"I don't think that Obama is going to say, 'Okay, we're going to legalize marijuana,'" said Domanick. "Maybe in the seventh year, the last year of his second term, if he's got 80 percent approval ratings, otherwise it's not going to happen."

FORTY YEAR WAR

Since Nixon coined the phrase, every president since has continued the "War on Drugs" in some form.

Much of the focus of the four-decade war been curbing supply and distribution of drugs such as cocaine in its journey from the Andes to dealers and users in U.S. cities. But supply has easily kept pace with demand.

Data compiled by Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, and University of Maryland professor Peter Reuter, show that at the "farm gate" in Colombia, 100 percent pure cocaine costs about $800.

After several mark-ups along the chain, dealers working for the cartels in the United States break down each kilo into individual grams sold between $80 to $100 each, generating between $80,000 and $100,000 a kilo, according to DEA data.

Kilmer said revenues can be even higher when the cocaine is diluted with other substances, with a kilo bringing in the equivalent of as much as $122,000 in some cases.

"Drug traffickers make so much money that even if there are big seizures they end up losing only a fraction of what they stand to make," Kilmer said.

"Experience has shown that major drug busts can lead to short-term shortages and high prices for drugs," he added. "But within a few months supply catches up with demand again."

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center 2009 report, at least 35 million Americans -- more than a tenth of the population -- used illicit drugs ranging from pot, to cocaine, meth and heroin and party drugs like ecstasy, or abused prescription drugs.

"If people weren't buying or using drugs," said Jim Lamkin, chief of police in the town of St Charles in Chicago's western suburbs, "people wouldn't be selling them."

Dr Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said the institute's data has shown that 34 percent of 18-year-olds have tried marijuana, the no. 1 drug in America.

Terry Goddard, attorney general in Arizona, the border state that bears the brunt of smuggling from Mexico, describes the train of traffickers moving north through the state as a "parade of ants."

"Here's the thing that bothers me so much about the drug policy that we've been engaged in... supply is up, demand is up, and the price is down," he said. "It does not sound like a formula for success to me, and the term abject failure comes to mind. It's about time that the whole policy was reanalyzed."

STOP TALKING ABOUT WAR

Efforts in the drug war have led on get-tough remedies, whether with a Republican or a Democrat in the White House.

In the 1980s, then President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that included measures to curb money laundering and seize drug dealers' assets, as well as handing down mandatory prison terms for drug offenses. Democrat Bill Clinton sought the aggressive eradication of cocaine production with the $1.3-billion Plan Colombia in 2000.

Undermining consumption has also played a part -- in the 1980s, Nancy Reagan pushed a "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign in schools, followed up by George H.W. Bush, who founded the "Drug Czar" office with the primary aim of reducing illicit drug use.

But drug Czar Kerlikowske does not like the term "War on Drugs" -- he has said that Americans "look at it as a war on them."

"I am absolutely convinced that the American public is ready and willing to listen to a more balanced conversation about drugs and is not looking for a simplistic bumper sticker answer," he told Reuters in a recent interview.

"Law enforcement people (say) 'We can't arrest our way out of this problem,' and they have known that for years."

In a more recent interview Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief, said that in 38 years as a police officer "I never once heard one of my colleagues refer to it as a war."

"That is just a term politicians use," he added.

In a further shift, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told federal prosecutors last October that prosecuting patients or caregivers in the 14 U.S. states with provisions allowing for the use of medical marijuana would "not be a priority" as long as they complied with state laws.

Although some drug reform advocates have interpreted this as a step toward the legalization, Kerlikowske said: "This is not being considered under any circumstances."

"I characterize it (the Obama administration's drug policy) as a much more balanced strategy... in which prevention and treatment have equal billing, equal weight, equal focus with the law enforcement side," he said.

SAVINGS SEEN

The first drug court was founded in the Miami area more than 20 years ago and there are now nearly 2,400 nationwide.

They focus on probationers "because if you use drugs for a long period of time, sooner or later you will more than likely end up in trouble with the law," RAND's Kilmer said.

A number of studies have shown that drug courts reduce crime in their area by up to 40 percent and cut rearrests and convictions by up to 26 percent. According to an April 2008 Urban Institute study, for every $1 spent on drug courts, $2.21 is saved through reduced police, hospital and other costs.

Treatment programs also cost about 50 percent less than incarceration, a fact that has apparently grabbed the attention of many cash-starved U.S. states.

"Quite frankly, we're in a very tough economy," Kerlikowske said. "That is spurring people to look at different solutions, especially ones that cost less than incarceration."

Domanick of John Jay College estimates 800,000 Americans a year are arrested for marijuana and said the situation has become unsustainable. "All of the data shows drug treatment works for people who are ready... if it works, you don't have to spend $50,000 to incarcerate people," he said.

Federal funding for drug courts was increased in the fiscal 2010 budget to $88.8 million from $63.8 million in 2009. West Huddleston, head of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, said the group aims to use bipartisan support in Congress to seek $1 billion in federal funding over four years to expand drug courts because they only reach about 10 percent of people who need them.

Others like Mark A. R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA, argue in favor of a new approach used in Hawaii, called Project Hope. Started by Judge Steven Alm, Hope uses swift punishment of a few nights in jail for those who fail drug tests and makes drug treatment voluntary -- in drug court, participation in treatment is mandatory.

Kleiman said the program had led to a 50 percent reduction in crime and a recidivism rate of 7 percent. "Drug courts are resource hogs," he said. "This system is much cheaper and more effective."

Critics of the program say without treatment for addiction, they doubt that drug addicts can go clean.

Drug Czar Kerlikowske said the Hope program would also be considered by the administration as part of the drug strategy it will make public in February.

For people like Chief Lamkin in St Charles, working with the drug court involves partnering closely with judges and defense attorneys to work out who has a chance of making it through the treatment program and who would be better off going to jail.

"But one thing is clear," he said. "If we locked up all the drug users we'd break the bank. It just isn't physically possible."

(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor, editing by Claudia Parsons and Jim Impoco)

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