Can You Tell When the Drug Czar Is Joking?


Last week drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, who used to be the chief of police in Seattle, returned there for an addiction conference and met with the editorial board of The Seattle Times. Since the request for the meeting came two days after the paper editorialized in favor of marijuana legalization, board members (and their sympathizers) expected something like a scolding. But editorial writer Bruce Ramsey reports that Kerlikowske "was cordial and almost laid-back." When asked about marijuana, "he did disagree with us, but so gently that some of the attendees wondered why he had come at all." The meeting attracted 25 or so protesters who urged Kerlikowske to "get with the Times."

When Ramsey asked Kerlikowske whether the war on drugs (which his boss, Barack Obama, once called an "utter failure") has been a success, he "did a double-take":

Didn't I know that one of his first acts as Drug Czar was to declare the War on Drugs over? Hadn't I seen that?

No. I thought the War on Drugs was still on.

"The War on Drugs is over," he said. "We've stopped looking at it as a criminal justice issue alone."

Was Kerlikowske kidding? It's hard to tell. Here is how Seattle Times reporter Jonathan Martin, who was at the meeting too, describes the exchange:

He also said President Obama has shifted the focus on drug policy by describing it as a public-health problem. The administration has asked for increased drug-treatment funding, while money for interdiction is stagnant, Kerlikowske said.

He noted he officially called an end to the "war on drugs" after taking office two years ago. "I don't know how you missed that," he joked.

What does it say about the Obama administration's drug policy that people can't tell whether the man ostensibly in charge of coordinating it is joking when he attaches so much significance to a half-hearted change in terminology?

For more on the alleged medicalization of the war on drugs, start here. The pot legalization bill endorsed by the Times is here. Unfortunately, it gives the state a monopoly on marijuana, which would be sold alongside distilled spirits in state stores.

[Thanks to Paul in Seattle for the tip.]