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White House tries to combat drug demand with rehab

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  • Drug court supporters say program is more effective than jail time
  • Biden stresses the importance of drug courts in announcing new drug czar
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(CNN) -- As President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon talk tough about cracking down on the deadly drug war, the United States is changing tactics in the battle against illegal narcotics at home.

Legalizing marijuana is off the table, the White House says.

Legalizing marijuana is off the table, the White House says.

The man Obama picked to be the new "drug czar," Gil Kerlikowske, has made it clear that the United States is going to do a better job of treating addicts to try to reduce the demand for narcotics.

Kerlikowske, 59, is a military veteran with 36 years of law enforcement experience. The drug czar oversees an agency that sets the country's drug-control strategy.

The White House and Congress want to see more drug courts, and increased funding for the program 250 percent in the spending bill signed in March.

It's a campaign pledge that the Obama administration thinks will give nonviolent offenders "a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior," according to the White House Web site.

Judge Paul Gluchowski, who works with the Prince William County Juvenile Drug Court in Virginia, dismissed the notion that a drug treatment program is the easy way out. Video Watch what it's like inside the drug court »

If anyone thinks that, he said he'd tell them they should "come and talk to some of the participants. A lot of them probably wish they never agreed to undergo drug court. And a lot of them have given up because it's too hard."

Those who slip up in drug court can be forced to wear ankle-monitoring bracelets or put into juvenile detention.

"If they don't give up, then when it comes time for graduation and you see the shine on their face, when you know that they have accomplished something, and they know that. That's what it's all about," Gluchowski said.

Vice President Joe Biden stressed the importance of drug courts and prisoner re-entry programs when he announced Kerlikowske's position in March, saying they "can serve as the light at the end of the tunnel, of a very long, long dark tunnel, for those who are stuck in the cycle of drug addiction and incarceration."

Kerlikowske said he was committed to tackling the nation's drug problem, but noted that it would take a "coordinated and multifaceted effort."

"The success of our efforts to reduce the flow of drugs is largely dependent on our ability to reduce demand for them," Kerlikowske said, calling the nation's drug problem one of "human suffering."

"It requires prosecutors and law enforcement, courts, treatment providers and prevention programs to exchange information and to work together. And our priority should be a seamless, comprehensive approach," he said.

In meeting with Calderon on Thursday, Obama tried to show Mexico's president that he is committed to ending a crisis that hits so close to home.

Obama vowed to beef up security along the border and to work to slow the flow of guns and drugs. He said the United States shares responsibility for the drug problem, saying "a demand for these drugs in the United States is what is helping to keep these cartels in business."

But he also tried to limit expectations that there could be any sort of quick fix.

"Now, are we going to eliminate all drug flows? Are we going to eliminate all guns coming over the border? That's not a realistic objective," he said. "What is a realistic objective is to reduce it so significantly, so drastically that it becomes once again a localized criminal problem, as opposed to a major structural problem that threatens stability in communities along those borders."

The White House has listened to those who say legalizing marijuana will pull the rug from under the violent cartels in Mexico and boost the U.S. economy, but that option is not on the table.

Asked Thursday if that is something realistic, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano quickly responded, "No, it is not."

Sixty percent of drug criminals sent to prison re-offend, compared to 17 percent of graduates of drug court, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Drug policy experts like those numbers, but say the nation needs more treatment options.

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"For individuals who don't have the resources, don't have public health insurance, can't afford it themselves, the single best way that they can access treatment is to get arrested," said Ryan King, a policy analyst with the Sentencing Project.

"And that's wrong. What we need to do is make sure for every American that is abusing drugs and wants to stop, that they have the resources made available to them, regardless of whether they can afford them."

CNN's Jim Acosta and Kristi Keck contributed to this report.

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