Is the U.S. Finally Going to Get Pragmatic About Drug Policy?

Obama’s Drug Czar Nominee Approved a Potential Break from the Past

This week, Obama’s drug czar nominee was approved by the senate. Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, has the potential to be the best drug czar ever appointed to that position. We may finally get a pragmatic solutions-oriented approach to drug control rather than drug war rhetoric that prevents real solutions.

While drug policy reformers were advocating for a public health professional as drug czar, President Obama went with a police chief. He made a potentially ground-breaking pick as the former police chief of Seattle has been good on needle exchange, medical marijuana, treatment and health services for addicts and he ushered in a new law to make marijuana the lowest prosecution priority in Seattle. He is a pragmatist who could shift the United States away from continuing to make the same mistakes over and over when it comes to drug policy.

The drug war is the issue I’ve worked most on over the last thirty years and one I follow very closely as president of Common Sense for Drug Policy. Drugs are an issue that seem unsolvable in the U.S. because every administration does the same thing — emphasizes enforcement at the expense of effectiveness. It is not surprising that doing the same thing over and over and getting the same result over and over makes a problem look unsolvable.

In fact, there are lots of changes that can be made — even within the confines of drug prohibition — that can improve the situation. When I served on Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke’s Working Group on Drug Policy in the late 1980s he asked us to come up with policies — within the framework of keeping drugs illegal (since he could not change that as a mayor) — that would improve how drugs were handled in Baltimore. There was a lot Schmoke did that made a positive difference, e.g. needle exchange, drug courts, treatment on request and social services for addicts.

Obama’s police chief drug czar comes from a city that has been at the forefront of reform. It was one of the early cities to emphasize public health approaches to addiction by making treatment more available and supporting needle exchange, methadone vans and harm reduction programs. It has developed a strong public health infrastructure with programs treat addicts as humans rather than as criminals. And, these programs make a tremendous positive difference for the person using drugs as well as the community he or she lives in. They reduce the spread of HIV and reduce crime.

Seattle reform activist Dominic Holden writes about how Kerlikowske has handled needle exchange and harm reduction in Seattle:

‘There has been long-standing support in the community as a whole and from SPD for our continued operation of the needle exchange,’ says James Apa, a spokesman for Seattle King County Public Health, which runs one of first and the nation’s largest needle-exchange programs. Seattle IV drug users have some of the lowest HIV-infection rates in the country, he says. But acceptance of the controversial program hasn’t been that long standing.

’What we would find is that police would hang around the exchange site and watch who came and went,’ says Kris Nyrop, former director of Street Outreach Services, a pioneering needle exchange group that operated a table in downtown Seattle in the late 1980s. ‘Their presence itself would be somewhat intimidating … people would see four police officers halfway down the block and they would turn around and go home,’ he says. ‘Harassment like that happened routinely up until the mid ’90s.’

But under Kerlikowske, ‘It has been a laissez-faire thing and the police basically leave needle exchanges alone,’ says Nyrop.

Needle exchange is a public health program to prevent the spread of HIV that research has shown reduces transmission without increasing drug use. It is part of what Europeans call “harm reduction,” i.e. reducing the harm caused by drugs to the individual and community. It is something that has been opposed by the U.S. drug enforcement bureaucracy. In addition, Kerlikowske replaced enforcement with public services and alternatives to arrest. One program his department implemented was the Get Off The Streets (GOTS) program. A police officer set up a table as an “arrest-free area” for people who had outstanding warrants. They could come to the table and get health and human services rather than be arrested. City Council Member Nick Lacata says that Kerlikowske could have stopped the program from getting funding by the city, “but he allowed it to go forward.” Licata says that while Kerlikowske is not going to end the drug war but “he recognizes that it has not been a success and I think he is open to other strategies.”

During Chief Kerlikowske’s tenure as police chief Seattle voted in favor of Initiative 75 in 2003 which made marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority. The public sent a message with their vote that they did not want limited law enforcement resources spent on marijuana offenses.

Chief Kerlikowske did not support I75 but when this law passed his administration implemented the law. The Seattle Police told a City Council Marijuana Policy Review Panel that “officers [had] been verbally advised during their roll calls that investigation and arrest of adults for possession of cannabis intended for personal use is to be their lowest priority.” The result, the city reduced marijuana possession arrests by more than half in six years and redirected law enforcement resources to real crime. Seattle’s crime rate is now at a historical 40-year low.

Kerlikowske worked closely with the organizers of the Seattle Hempfest – the largest marijuana reform gathering in the nation. More than 200,000 people attend the annual event. The Seattle Police essentially allowed the organizers to police themselves. They kept a very low key presence at the event and did not seek out marijuana consumers at the festival for arrest.

One common denominator of previous drug czar’s is they all made marijuana the top priority of their attention. The current drug czar, John Walters, wrote U.S. attorneys “[N]o drug matches the threat posed by marijuana” reflecting the views of Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, looking at the history of drug czar’s — really a rogue’s gallery including right wing social conservatives like Bill Bennett (who hid his gambling addiction while punishing other addicts) and extreme militarist Barry McCaffery (accused of war crimes in the first Gulf War) — Kerlikowske could be the superstar of drug czars. If he personally holds views consistent with his experience in Seattle the U.S. may actually begin to solve the seemingly unsolvable drug issue. It would be a welcome change to have a pragmatist rather than an ideologue in charge of drug policy.

Kerlikowske, a 36 year police veteran, is a tough police chief who is widely respected and widely criticized. When appointed by Obama he was serving as president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, an organization composed of 56 largest law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and has been a chief in three previous cities in New York and Florida. He has been extremely aggressive with environmental and anti-corporate trade demonstrators some say violating their free speech rights. He has also used the forfeiture power of police aggressively and has been proud of para-military units in his police force. And, his force – like too many in the United States – has been criticized for abuse of African Americans.

The marijuana issue and drug war more generally have gotten a lot of attention lately, particularly the battlefronts of Mexico and Afghanistan. There is debate in the media about legalization and decriminalization, especially of marijuana. So, Kerlikowske takes the helm at a time of potential change to more sensible policies. We’ll see whether pragmatism, ideology or the long-term habit of “drug war” politics wins out.

Kevin Zeese co-directs Popular Resistance and is on the coordinating council for the Maryland Green Party. Read other articles by Kevin, or visit Kevin's website.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Max Shields said on May 9th, 2009 at 2:57pm #

    There is NO need for a Drug Czar, Mr. Zeese.

    Is that little itsy bitsy factoid not fit into your little essay? Since when does a czar end what he’s in charge of, something that has been thoroughly institutionalized.

    It is clear that a bone here and there seems to be enough to keep you pseudo-progressives at bay.

    By the way, since when have pragmatist escaped the lable of ideolog?

    Take our other wars, you know the ones that launches troops and drones, those have their roots in “pragmatism”. Maybe it’s a worldview that sees danger everywhere but it is a “pragmatic” approach to such a world view.

    Substantively there is little difference between Presidents since Truman – look up the NSC 68 to see how this has devined along with Monroe’s Doctrine and the Exceptionalism that has guided US policies for over a century, make that 2.

    The “war on drugs” and the “drug czar” frames policies, as does the war on terror (aka the long war). Once locked and loaded it becomes the modus operandi for US policies and action on the world stage.

    Obama would be a “different” president if he dismantled the Penatgon (for pragmatic reasons – it adds no value, FDR didn’t need it or the NSC, that would mean eliminating the Cold War apparatus that creates our pathological war and fear mongering. Again, read the NSC 68 document that was declassified in 1975. It, not PNAC, is the guiding policy that all Presidents from Truman on have followed, including G.W. Bush and now Obama. The “war on drugs” is simply an extention.

  2. bozh said on May 10th, 2009 at 6:10am #

    max, right,
    a tsar or czar appointed by other czars has been tried countless times by czars; changes they bring are cosmetic or none.
    why not try a referendum? At least as joke or amusement? tnx

  3. Max Shields said on May 10th, 2009 at 7:50am #

    The fundamental problem is not a “better” csar but NO csar. It is wacky to be talking about having someone who will be in charge of an insane policy and the institutionalization of yet another war, this one on drugs, when the solution is simple: decriminalize drugs (as they have successfully done in Portugal) dramatically reduce incarceration, save billions annually on a non-value added massive outlay of law-enforcement that has done more to exacerbate and create profit off of life-ruining additions.

    Obama as a pragmatist is a JOKE. His pragmatism is about not disturbing the power structure.

    The imperial presidency can do some things that matter: 1) end the war on drugs NOW!, push to decriminalize it, 2) Dismantle the Cold-war apparatus which has been allowed to roam and figure out a new reason for being; which means small wars the world over. Obama has feed the monster. It provides absolutely no value; has been disatrously WRONG with its CIA “intelligence” it’s mindless thrashing as the NSC 68 and it’s Wise Men have fearmongered America into one bloody war of aggression after another. Stop it now; call it what ever euphamistically works as a pragmatised, but defang it.

    Then reduce the Cabinet to a handfull of posts; managing “defense” as DEFENSE with the same number FDR had in place which was one or two. Why do we need a Secretary of State; isn’t that the President? If he/she needs a spokesperson then claim it as such.

    All posts titled Csar need to be eliminated NOW. When did we decide as a nation that we needed the 19th Century Russian monarchy to solve problems – which are NEVER solved by these csars who are self-perpetuating nincompoops!

    Enough of the wishful thinking about Obama. These posts were the invention of fearmongering that has cost humankind dearly and they can be banished with the wave of a steady pen and some courage.

  4. Richard Steeb said on May 10th, 2009 at 10:59am #

    “[N]o drug matches the threat posed by marijuana PROHIBITION.”

    Now it’s correct!

    To keep Cannabis illegal while tobacco and alcohol are dispensed freely is murderously stupid.

    — Any questions ???

    Richard Steeb
    San Jose, California

  5. Suthiano said on May 10th, 2009 at 12:07pm #

    Preacherman, don’t tell me,
    Heaven is under the earth.
    I know you don’t know
    What life is really worth.
    Its not all that glitters is gold;
    Half the story has never been told:
    So now you see the light, eh!
    Stand up for your rights. come on!

    Most people think,
    Great God will come from the sky,
    Take away everything
    And make everybody feel high.
    But if you know what life is worth,
    You will look for yours on earth:
    And now you see the light,
    You stand up for your right. jah!

    Bob Marley knew, do you know?

    They’ll never legalize drugs… that would allow the other “half” of the story that’s been hidden to come to the light. so “now you see the light, you stand up for your right”! Human’s have been using natural drugs for at least 25,000 years (!

  6. Voletear said on May 10th, 2009 at 5:39pm #

    Turn the computer off…and take to the streets!

  7. Russell Olausen said on May 10th, 2009 at 9:50pm #

    Prosecution of various drugs goes up and down but never,never,never, think any form of legalization.

  8. Kaelieh said on May 11th, 2009 at 4:58am #

    Just when did czars become the “it” thing in the US?

  9. Lloyd said on May 12th, 2009 at 5:32am #

    There’s been a lot of water… under the bridge… since a cop and Harvard-graduate named McCarthy became Chief of Police in San Jose. And I’m not even sure what a Drug Czar does.

    But I grew up in San Antonio (don’t call it San Antone!), and still have a sister living there, and the perspective from south-Central Texas is almost strictly “local news” of Mexicans killing… each other?…

    Where? …I asked her a couple of weeks ago, in America? And is it a General Pershing situation? She thought a minute and told me, No, they’re mostly killing each other in Mexico, you know, in Acapulco, and Mexico De Feee.

    This was swine-flu time, and… like the Drug War disappearing for a while in the national media… the topic quickly passed in the telecon between me and my sis.

    But count on it. Drugs will be back big-time… The old border-war… And it’s baseball season and like springtime returning, there will be interminable Congressional inquests aimed at the offending players…

    Can a new national wave of drug-terror be far behind? Just the shot in the arm the DJIA needs, as it were?

  10. Pat Rogers said on May 14th, 2009 at 2:47pm #

    This isn’t a war its a police action.

    Haven’t we heard this before?

    The only change we can expect from the Obama administration is a change in semantics and rhetoric. Otherwise they are increasing spending on the drug war, escalating enforcement and militarizing the Mexican border Drug War.

    By disassociating themselves with the term ‘war on drugs’ the Obama Administration is admitting that the drug war has accumulated a top heavy load of negative political connotations that Obama does not want to be associated with. At the same time Obama’s actions, such as increasing a supplemental appropriation request by more than half a billion for Mexico, three billion dollars to reinvigorate the discredited drug task force grants, sending troops into the Afghan poppy fields to fight the Taliban, reneging on needle exchange policy and not stopping medical pot raids as promised, are all rapidly escalating and militarizing the the war on drugs policy.

    It is the height of duplicity and ultimate in cynical moral depravity for the Obama to think that they can simply change the name, re-brand the war on drugs, and everything could just continue on as normal with this four decades long undeclared civil war.

    Obama’s Quagmire on the Rio Grande