Why a Drug Czar Was Tapped to Guard the Border

PHOTO: gilLuis Soto/AFP/Getty Images
The director of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, on June 22, 2012.

President Obama wants to swing his drug czar into a new role guarding the nation's borders, a move that would create a vacancy in the office that sets the federal government's drug policies.

On Friday, Obama nominated Gil Kerlikowske to head U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which oversees the Border Patrol and customs officers.

You might wonder why a drug expert is now being considered for a law enforcement post.

The answer: Kerlikowske isn't actually a drug expert by training.

He came to the Office of National Drug Control Policy from Seattle, where he served as chief of police from 2001 until his White House appointment in 2009. His educational and professional background is in law enforcement, not scientific research on drugs.

When Kerlikowske joined the Obama team during the president's first term, groups in favor of drug law reform, like the Drug Policy Alliance, sounded hopeful.

"We're cautiously optimistic that Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske will support Obama's drug policy reform agenda," they said in a statement. "What gives us hope is the fact that Seattle has been at the cutting edge of harm reduction and other drug policy reform developments in the United States over the last decade."

Coming from Seattle, Kerlikowske had dealt with one of the country's more science-based approaches to drug policy. The city had an established needle-exchange program for drug users, and medicinal marijuana had already been legal there for more than a decade.

The former police chief tried to bring that mindset to his new role setting federal policy. He quickly moved to change the government's rhetoric around illicit substances, calling for drug agencies to stop using the term "war on drugs" and stressing that drug use was a public health problem.

When Washington and Colorado began to consider legalizing marijuana, he didn't campaign against the change in laws, or threaten an all-out battle with the feds.

There's also the Affordable Care Act. The president's sweeping healthcare plan will require certain health insurers to cover people suffering from substance abuse. By 2014, health insurers participating in health exchanges and Medicaid will need to provide services for people with drug abuse disorders.

But Kerlikowske didn't radically reshape federal drug policy during his tenure. The Obama administration continued to value criminal enforcement of drug laws over treatment, at least when it came to spending.

The federal government's 2013 drug-control budget asked that more than half of its $25.6 billion allotment go toward domestic drug-law enforcement (37.4 percent), as well as chasing down smugglers (14.6 percent) and thwarting international drug operations (7.8 percent). A minority of the spending -- 41.8 percent -- was devoted to treatment and prevention.

Even though public support for marijuana legalization is growing, federal agencies have shown a particular focus on tracking down pot sellers. Marijuana made up 94 percent of the Drug Enforcement Agency's seizures in 2011, judging by weight.

The numbers were practically the same for Border Patrol that year -- going by weight, pot made up 95 percent of the drug seized by the agency.

That's where Kerlikowske comes in.

Even with the public health rhetoric he brought to his role as drug czar, he never abandoned the message that marijuana is a dangerous drug.

In September 2012, when talking about teenagers smoking pot, Kerlikowske said, "marijuana is still bad news."

He went on to dismiss the use of medicinal marijuana and efforts to legalize the drug.

"I think they are getting a bad message on marijuana," he said. "I think that the message that it's medicine and should be legalized is a bad message."

The statement was hardly an aberration. Over and over, he publicly expressed doubt about the medicinal value of marijuana.

That mindset has played out in enforcement actions, too. Even in states where marijuana had been legalized for recreational or medicinal use, federal drug agents continue to raid pot dispensaries.

With all of this in mind, Kerlikowske could be a natural fit to oversee Customs and Border Protection. The agency has seized an enormous amount of marijuana along the Southwest border in recent years, and nabbing pot smugglers is a major part of its mission, in practice.

Of course, he'll also be scrutinized for how he approaches immigration policy. The last acting commissioner of CBP, David Aguilar, was a career Border Patrol officer.

That's certainly not Kerlikowske's background, but the former police chief did have experience with the issue in Seattle. During his tenure, the Seattle Police Department had an official policy not to ask a person about his or her immigration status. The city stood out as immigrant-friendly, in contrast to some surrounding areas in Washington state.

Another factor to consider with Kerlikowske's move to the border agency is that the Obama administration can now pick a new drug czar.

After years of rhetoric about a public health approach to drug policy, a fitting choice would be to choose a health expert, as opposed to a law enforcement officer.