To hear President Obama’s drug czar tell it, the leading voices on drug policy are kind of crazy.
“Over the past few years, this public debate on drug policy lurches between two extreme views,” White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske said during a speech today at the Center for American Progress.
“On one side we have a very vocal, organized, well-funded advocates who insist that drug legalization is a ‘silver bullet’ for addressing our nation’s drug problem. Then we have the other side. On the other side of the debate are those who insist that a law-enforcement-only, ‘War on Drugs’ approach … is the way to create a drug free society,” Kerlikowske said.
“The Obama administration strongly believes that neither of these approaches is humane, realistic, or — most importantly — grounded in science,” Kerlikowske said.
The drug czar was speaking at the Center for American Progress, promoting the White House’s new National Drug Control Strategy, which calls for a focus on treatment and prevention rather than punishment.
“I’m a police chief who talks about education and public health,” Kerlikowske said. “For a police chief that would have talked about this a few years ago, you would have been categorized as either soft on drugs or soft on crime.”
Kerlikowske’s appointment and confirmation in 2009 elicited cautious optimism from marijuana-legalization advocates in particular. “The difference between he and [Bush drug czar John P. Walters] is night and day,” NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre said of Kerlikowske at the time. Upon taking office, Kerlikowske nominally end the “War on Drugs,” excising those words from official policy. A former Seattle police chief who had implemented the effective local decriminalization of marijuana at voters’ behest, Kerlikowske himself never advocated that degree of drug-policy softening.
And he still doesn’t. ”There’s no reason to legalize marijuana,” Kerlikowske said during a Q&A session after his speech on Tuesday, disparaging the Proposition 19 marijuana-legalization ballot measure that failed in California in 2010.
What Kerlikowske said he wants is a “third way,” as he calls the White House’s new plan–a transformation of law enforcement’s role in U.S. drug policy, and a shift from viewing drug addiction as a moral crime to viewing it as a treatable disease.
“I don’t want to see law enforcement characterized as anti prevention, anti treatment,” Kerlikowske said, touting fewer incarcerations of low-level drug offenders and more treatment plans ordered by drug courts.
To illustrate his vision of law enforcement’s potential role, Kerlikowske told the story of a meth addict in St. Louis, who was stopped by a police officer while on the way to see his mother, who was recovering from cancer. The young man sought rehab because of how the officer treated him, Kerlikowske said.
The drug czar said he didn’t always see things that way and that his views changed after he was asked to take on the White House role.
“If you’d asked me before I got this job about the disease of addiction, I would have said this is a moral failure, people just need to find God,” Kerlikowske said. ”If I regret anything in my law-enforcement career, it wasn’t understanding and recognizing the disease of addiction and what a powerful ally law enforcement can be.”