The Obama administration's nominee for director of National Drug Control Policy said he will take a balanced approach to drug policy with a renewed focus on the prevention and treatment of addiction, if he is confirmed as the nation's new drug czar.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske said he would focus on reducing violence along the Mexican border and on stemming the supply of illegal drugs, but said "the greatest contribution we can make toward [international] stability would be to reduce our demand for illicit drugs."
The nomination of Kerlikowske, the police chief of a relatively liberal city that has been at the forefront of developing alternative approaches to combating illegal drugs, has been widely seen as part of a broader shift away from long prison sentences for drug offenders and toward an emphasis on prevention and treatment.
"There will be a renewed focus on evidence-based approaches to reduce demand for drugs, through prevention as well as treatment," Kerlikowske said, according to his prepared statement.
Several states and the federal government have recently signaled their willingness to consider alternatives to the tough-on-crime approach that has often dominated drug policy.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the Justice Department will not prosecute local medical marijuana dispensaries so long as they comply with state medical marijuana laws.
Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., have sponsored legislation to create a commission to review the nation's criminal justice system, with Webb saying last year, "our approach to curbing illegal drug use is broken."
"There is a broader trend to roll back parts of the war on drugs. I think there are going to be significant changes in domestic drug policy," said Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a drug reform advocacy group, calling Kerlikowske's approach a "radical difference from the Bush administration."
Several states, even traditionally tough-on-crime states like Kentucky, are also exploring treatment alternatives and eliminating mandatory minimum drug sentences. This month, Kentucky passed a law sending hundreds of drug offenders to treatment instead of prison. California is considering sending low level drug offenders to treatment instead of parole.
Last week, legislative leaders in New York agreed to relax the state's 1970s-era drug laws, once among the toughest in the country. Those laws, known as the Rockefeller drug laws, after then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who implemented them, sparked a national movement for mandatory minimum sentences for even low-level drug crimes.
In Ohio, the prosecuting attorney's association has proposed eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drugs. Arizona's attorney general has reportedly said he would consider legalizing marijuana.
"We need to start to be smart on crime and not just tough on crime," said J. Michael Brown, the secretary of the Kentucky State Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. "Drugs have been a real bane on the criminal justice system. What we're seeing is a paradigm shift is to try to break the cycle of substance abuse."