The Drug War

Drug Czar Gil Goes to Washington

Kerlikowske’s confirmed. Now will he bring a change?

By Eric Scigliano May 7, 2009

To no one’s surprise, Seattle’s soon-to-be-ex-police chief, Gil Kerlikowske, was confirmed today as director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, aka "drug czar" (though Kerlikowske is likely to be less imperious than some previous holders of the job, partly because Obama has downgraded it from cabinet status). It’s a welcome appointment for all involved. Many veteran officers will be glad to see Kerlikowske’s back (see here for why—then again they’ve said that about previous chiefs they’d be glad to have now). Nine years is a long time spend as chief, and Kerlikowske was clearly itching to play on a bigger stage. A friend says Mrs. K will be glad to get back to DC, where Kerlikowske worked in the Clinton administration.

Kerlikowske’s predecessor, Norm Stamper, has a particular interest in the choice of drug-policy director. Stamper, who now basks on Orcas Island when he’s not lecturing around the country, is an anti-drug-war warrior—a prominent member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and outspoken advocate of drug legalization and regulation. "We were hoping for a public health official" in the job, says Stamper. "That would send a strong message." But no president since Jimmy Carter has dared appoint a treatment rather than enforcement professional as drug czar.

Still, says Stamper, if you gotta have a cop in the job, Kerlikowske’s the best likely choice. "He’s not seen as a drug-policy reformer, but he’s been neutral or receptive to state reform efforts." He’s gotta be a vast improvement over Bush’s reefer-maddened drug czar John Waters and the hardliners and clowns who preceded him. And like the politician in the Traffic films, Kerlikowske has learned from having a son who’s struggled with drugs.

The public is ready to shift from punishment to sanity in drug policy. And Kerlikowske could be just the cop to help make that change.

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