Mexico tops agenda for new Drug Czar

“Violent drug trafficking organizations threaten both the United States and Mexican communities,” Vice President Joe Biden said at a ceremony to nominate Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as the new drug czar. Biden said Kerlikowske would oversee a strategy to improve intelligence sharing and boost interdiction of drugs into the US and guns and cash into Mexico. “It is a strategy we need…in order to bring the situation under control, to protect our people, and to bring about the demise of the Mexican drug cartels,” Biden said.

“With escalating violence along our southwest border and far too many suffering from the disease of addiction here at home, never has it been more important to have a national drug control strategy guided by sound principles of public safety and public health,” President Barack Obama said. If confirmed by the Senate, Kerlikowske will head the Office of National Drug Control Policy—which Obama announced he intends to demote from a cabinet-level post. (Reuters, March 11)

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) notes the irony that Joe Biden was a big advocate of making the ONDCP a cabinet post in 1993, and takes heart in Kerlikowske’s appointment:

Unlike the prior Drug Czar, John “Unicorn” Walters…Chief Kerlikowske crafted pragmatic public policies and law enforcement practices that immediately distinguish him from his predecessors such as Bennett, Gen. Barry McCaffrey and Walters.

To wit:

-200,000 pro-reform cannabis law supporters converge on the waterfront in Seattle in mid-August for the world famous Hempfest, where adults openly consume cannabis and the hundreds of police present make few to no arrests (and where, ironically, alcohol use is strictly forbidden).

-Local law enforcement in Seattle apparently does not harass the artisans who craft and market the remarkable glass paraphernalia (AKA, medical delivery devices) for which Seattle is famous.

Compare that with Walters’ and former Attorney General Ashcroft’s zealous pursuit and culture-smashing symbolism of arresting, prosecuting and actually incarcerating NORML Advisory Board member Tommy Chong for nine months in a federal prison for the “crime” of selling high-end artisan, Chong Bongs.

-Seattle police have a generally good track record working with medical cannabis providers, physicians and patients—including Chief Kerlikowske meeting with medical cannabis stakeholders about how to best implement Washington State’s 2000 medical cannabis laws. Compare this with Walters and McCaffrey who collectively spent 14 years insisting that there is no such thing at all as medical cannabis (often comparing it to crack cocaine), patients who claim efficacy or relief from cannabis as “fakers”, recommending physicians as “kooks” and the majority of citizens who’ve voted for medical cannabis law reform as “easily duped by legalizers.”

Similar points are actually made in a March 12 editorial in Seattle Times:

[Kerlikowske] comes from a state whose citizens voted not to enforce the federal law if marijuana is used as medicine. He also comes from a city whose people voted to make marijuana possession the lowest priority for police work.

Kerlikowske didn’t support that measure, but he learned to live with it. His police force has been tolerant at Seattle’s annual Hempfest.

Concerning the stronger drugs, Kerlikowske has tolerated needle-exchange programs. He has supported drug court, which offers treatment to low-level offenders as an alternative to prison. He has a son who has been arrested for drugs, so he has seen the drug war from that angle, too.

Kerlikowske is not a legalizer, nor is President Obama. Federal agents will still interdict drugs coming into the United States and attack trafficking internally.

But under Kerlikowske there should be more respect for medical science, psychology and economics — and of the limitations of police and prisons.

There is some confusion in press accounts (including the Reuters account cited above) as to the history of the ONDCP’s status as a cabinet-level office. An accurate account is provided by the website Find Federal Agency:

The idea for the ONDCP originated in the House of Representatives during the administration of President Ronald Reagan. The office began official operations under President George Bush on January 29, 1989, under the provisions of the National Narcotics Leadership Act of 1988. According to some observers, the ONDCP was devised as a political ploy by a Democratic Congress during a Republican administration. The “war on drugs” became a battle cry, and the director of the ONDCP was quickly nicknamed “the drug czar.” Gordon Witkin of U.S. News and World Report challenged the motive behind the ONDCP when he wrote, “The drug ‘czar’ is a joke… The Office of National Drug Control Policy has been a political shuttlecock since the idea first arose…. The office had no real power.”

William Bennett, the first director, was appointed by President George Bush. Although well liked, he accomplished little before he resigned in 1990. Bennett’s successor, former Florida governor Bob Martinez, suffered harsh criticism for using his office as a vehicle for political payback. It was rumored that nearly one-half of the ONDCP staff members under Martinez were appointed in repayment of political favors.

When President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, he appointed John Walters as acting director and reduced the ONDCP staff from 146 to 25 employees. Walters eventually resigned. Clinton later elevated the directorship of the ONDCP to a presidential cabinet position, and he appointed former police chief Lee Brown to fill the position. In January 1996 Clinton seemingly reversed his policy, increasing the ONDCP budget and staff. He also appointed Barry McCaffrey to replace Brown.

Some critics maintained that the abrupt restoration of ONDCP was no more than a ruse to establish a “tough on drugs” image during an election year. Whatever the motives, the ONDCP is a cabinet office, and Clinton continued to speak out about the need to eliminate drugs even after he was reelected.

All links added. It seems, happily, that Obama backed off from his earlier reported choice for the drug czar slot, Jim Ramstad.

See our last posts on Mexico’s narco wars and the war on plants.

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  1. Drug Czar nominee’s son in jail on pot rap
    Drug Czar nominee’s son Jeff Kerlikowske is currently in Paul Rein Detention Facility, Pompano Beach, Fla., on a parole violation for marijuana possession and distribution, and battery charges dating back to 1998. At the nomination announcement March 11, Kerlikowske acknowledged, “In my own family, I have experienced the effects that drugs can have on our youth, our families and our communities.” (CelebStoner, March 11)