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A Break From the Past in the Drug War?

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 is the Executive Director of Campaign for Fresh Air and Clean Politics whose Prosperity Agenda Project is advocating for an economy for all, including health care for all.

More articles by:

Kevin Zeese is an organizer at Popular Resistance.

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