Some Questions About Obama’s Drug Czar Pick
Today, President Barack Obama officially tapped Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Democrats were quick to hail the pick. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) issued a statement saying the choice “sends a strong message to law enforcement that help is on the way in tackling the drug problem too many are afraid to acknowledge.”
But some advocates argue that the emphasis on law enforcement above public health in addressing the nation’s drug problem is precisely the reason that drug abuse remains pervasive despite a decades-long “war” against it.
Indeed, the “enforcement vs. health” debate is precisely what’s driving the controversy this week in Vienna, where United Nations members have gathered to finalize a declaration that will dictate global drug policy for the next 10 years. Despite European insistence that health-focused “harm reduction” language be included in that document, the United States helped kill the provision. Harm reduction, the White House says, is “ambiguous” and includes “practices that the United States does not wish to endorse.”
Examples of such practices include drug legalization programs, drug consumption rooms and heroin prescription initiatives — some of which are being tried with promising results in Canada, Australia and a handful of European countries. From the law-enforcement angle, of course, those programs are all very troubling. After all, it’s somewhat counterintuitive that the public could be served by letting drug addicts use legally.
But from a public health perspective, it makes more sense. If you concede that addicts are going to use — and there’s been very little indication that the war on drugs is stopping them — then why not have them do it in a well-lit environment where clean needles are available to prevent HIV, nurses are available to treat infections and counselors are available to wean users out of their habit? Who, after all, would claim that prison offers a safer environment or a better opportunity for rehab?
In the case of Kerlikowske, advocates remain hopeful. Daniel Wolfe, director of the Open Society Institute’s harm reduction development program, said last week that Seattle has one of the oldest needle-exchange programs in the country. Other reports indicate that marijuana-related arrests have plummeted in Seattle under Kerlikowske’s watch.
Also, Kerlikowske’s son has reportedly been in legal trouble related to drugs — a plight the father referenced in remarks prepared for accepting the nomination. “As a police officer, but also in my own family,” he said, “I have experienced first-hand the devastating effects that drugs can have on our youth, our families and our communities.”
Still, with the State Department, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the ONDCP stacked with employees attuned to the law enforcement theories of past administrations, advocates say an attitudinal switch from an enforcement-based posture to a public health focus won’t happen in Washington overnight.
“It’s a story of a position in transition,” Wolfe said.