The Next Drug Czar: Is the Best Good Enough?


Given the skimpy evidence of Gil Kerlikowske's drug policy views, I was eager to see what Norm Stamper, Kerlikowske's predecessor as Seattle's police chief and now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, had to say about the man President Obama reportedly has chosen to be his drug czar. But it turns out that Stamper, like other critics of the war on drugs, can only guess at how Kerlikowske will approach the job: 

Will the 36-year law enforcement veteran put the country on a path to more sensible drug policy?

I don't know….

He's intelligent, putatively progressive, and more inclined toward research and evidence than your average police administrator.

But will he be open to candid conversation about what the drug war has wrought, and what tomorrow's drug policy ought to look like? What's his current take on the drug war? I'm with Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance…

Nadelmann, as I noted yesterday, said he was "cautiously optimistic" about Kerlikowske, based mainly on the police chief's experience with policies such as needle exchange, letting patients use marijuana as a medicine, and making arrests of pot smokers the city's lowest law enforcement priority. "He is clearly familiar with them and has not been a forceful opponent," Nadelmann said. Stamper adds: "One thing I know for sure about Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske? If Michael Phelps had bent over that bong in Seattle and not in Sheriff Leon Lott's Richland County, SC, he'd have nothing to fear but a foolish and fickle cereal maker."

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer tosses a few more tidbits into this thin gruel:

He recently gave his blessing to a pilot program in drug-plagued Belltown for officers to send drug users to treatment or job centers instead of jail….

A 1998 state law allows debilitated and terminally ill patients to use medical marijuana, but gives police departments wide latitude in whether to make an arrest.

Despite that, [Alison] Holcomb [drug policy director for the ACLU of Washington] said Kerlikowske's officers have "demonstrated compassion" in not arresting known growers and users in medical marijuana cases.

She also said his officers are respectful and tolerant when they patrol Hempfest, the city's annual celebration of drug-law reforms.

Treatment advocates praised Kerlikowske for setting a respectful tone emulated by the rank and file toward the city's many innovative services for addicts…

In 2003, the chief had initially opposed Initiative 75, a measure approved by Seattle voters that made enforcement of marijuana for adult personal use the lowest priority for police and city attorneys. But activists say he has since ordered his officers to implement the law.

The main thing Kerlikowske has going for him is the low standard set by the men who preceded him at the Office of National Drug Control Policy. As Nadelmann told the Post-Intelligencer, "He's likely to be the best drug czar we've seen, but that's not saying much."