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America Set Seven Big Drug-Control Goals in 2010. It Failed All of Them.

Researchers point to the opioid epidemic as a major reason for the policy setback.
A door is painted with the message to stop selling heroin on a street in a neighborhood in New York City.

A door is painted with the message to stop selling heroin on a street in a neighborhood in New York City.

In 2010, the Obama administration set seven major goals about drug use in America. Among those goals: stopping teenagers from using alcohol and drugs, cutting down on the number of Americans who regularly use harder drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, and slashing the number of drug deaths. Officials designed programs to reach those goals and set 2015 as a deadline. Now, there's finally enough data to assess the success of those various programs, and the results are not very inspiring.

"The federal government did not achieve any of its overall goals," says Diana Maurer of the Government Accountability Office. She attributes the lack of success to the United States' current opioid epidemic. "It is so much larger today than anyone foresaw in 2010."

That's not to say the data offers no good news. The team found that the country has more than met its smaller goals of reducing the numbers of eighth-graders who try alcohol and tobacco and cutting the number of Americans who contract HIV every year through needle-sharing. The U.S. has also made moderate progress, even if it hasn't quite met its set target, in reducing the number of teens using drugs. While these were all categorized as "sub-goals" in the 2010 National Drug Control Strategy, that doesn't mean they're not important.

"One of the main themes is the tremendous human toll that illicit drugs has taken in this country."

At the same time, more young American adults use drugs in the latest available data than did in 2009; there are more emergency-room visits due to drugs; and far more Americans now die every year because of drugs. More than 55,000 Americans died of drug-related causes in 2015, including more than 33,000 who died after using opioids such as prescription painkillers, heroin, and fentanyl. "That's tragic," Maurer says. "One of the main themes is the tremendous human toll that illicit drugs has taken in this country."

Maurer led a team analyzing the government's success on the 2010 National Drug Control Strategy and presented their findings before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Thursday. In an accompanying report, Maurer and her co-workers offered recommendations on how the federal government should best combat its drug problems, based on a panel of health-care and law-enforcement experts assembled by the Government Accountability Office in June of 2016. The experts supported everything from stricter guidelines for prescribing painkillers to community partnerships in which police, schools, and health-care professionals work together to combat drug use. The experts also pointed out prevention programs that have evidence of their effectiveness (research suggests the immensely popular D.A.R.E. program isn't one of them). A more promising new crop of efforts to keep kids off drugs focus on teaching teens how to make good decisions and deal with stress—which might be the root causes of problematic drug use—rather than on the drugs themselves.

Hungry to learn more about America's drug goals from 2010? Check out our table, below. All the numbers come from the Government Accountability Office.

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For now, the future of America's drug goals remains in a peculiar limbo. There is not yet a new National Drug Control Strategy, even though such a strategy is due at the start of February every year. The government agency responsible for writing the strategy, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, doesn't yet have a director. Until then, what numbers and deadlines the Trump administration will aim for remain to be seen.