Drug Policy

Drug Czar Calls for End to War on Drugs

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Unfortunately, it's the name he doesn't like, not the policy. Gil Kerlikowske, the former Seattle police chief who now heads the Office of National Drug Control Policy, tells The Wall Street Journal:

Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a "war on drugs" or a "war on a product," people see a war as a war on them. We're not at war with people in this country.

According to the Journal, "Mr. Kerlikowske's comments are a signal that the Obama administration is set to follow a more moderate—and likely more controversial—stance on the nation's drug problems….The Obama administration is likely to deal with drugs as a matter of public health rather than criminal justice alone, with treatment's role growing relative to incarceration, Mr. Kerlikowske said."

Where have we heard this before? From Barry McCaffrey, Bill Clinton's drug czar, who turned out to be so hardline that he refused to admit there was any evidence of marijuana's therapeutic value and could not stomach the idea of letting states set their own policies regarding medical use of the plant. Under McCaffrey, the federal government went beyond busting medical marijuana growers and distributors by threatening doctors who dared recommend marijuana to their patients with loss of their prescription privileges and jail. In other words, it tried  to punish them for exercising their freedom of speech, a policy that was rejected by a federal appeals court in a 2002 decision that the Supreme Court declined to review.

Although McCaffrey had little concern for actual cancer patients who use marijuana to relieve the nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, the former general liked to say that suppressing drug use is more like treating a cancer than waging a war. As I noted in 1998, however, he "still thinks that people who possess politically incorrect chemicals should be arrested, humiliated, imprisoned, and divested of their property. Presumably, though, it should be done with compassion."

So far the Obama administration is notably better than either of the two preceding administrations on sentencing, and it has sent encouraging signals regarding medical marijuana (although the reality still does not match the rhetoric). But as the Journal notes, "prior administrations talked about pushing treatment and reducing demand while continuing to focus primarily on a tough criminal-justice approach." We should not be fooled by medicalized language into believing that drug prohibition is less brutal or less of an assault on our rights. Pace Kerlikowske, the government will be "at war with people in this country" as along as it tries to forcibly prevent them from altering their consciousness with taboo substances.

In a 2000 column, on the occasion of McCaffrey's resignation, I reviewed some of his anti-drug whoppers. In 2006 I noted McCaffrey's declaration that the U.S. was winning the war on medical intervention against Afghan opium. That pronouncement turned out to be premature. I discuss drug policy reformers' hopes for Kerlikowske here, here, and here.