Huffpost Politics

Gil Kerlikowske: Obama's Drug Czar

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Vice President Joe Biden officially nominated Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as chief of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Wednesday.

Biden spoke of the violence in Mexico between warring drug cartels and the government, which has recently spilled over into the United States and which is sure to challenge Kerlikowske on day one. According to CBS:

Biden stressed that Kerlikowske faces "daunting" challenges in the Southwest thanks to drug trafficking from Mexico, a concern echoed by President Obama in a statement on Kerlikowske's nomination.

"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," the president said. "We must demonstrate to our international partners, the criminal organizations threatening to undermine stability and the rule of law in those nations, and the American people, that we take seriously our responsibility to reduce drug use in the United States."

Earlier today, an agency official said that the "drug czar" will no longer have Cabinet-level status, but that Kerlikowske "will have a seat at the table when important decisions are being made ... and full access and a direct line to the president and vice president."

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Seattle's Chief of Police Gil Kerlikowske has been called to Washington to serve as Obama's 'drug czar', the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports. ABC News confirmed the report. Kerlikowske has led the Seattle police force for nearly a decade. He has worked in Washington before, as a deputy director in the Justice Department during the Clinton years. .

Here is more from the Post-Intelligencer:

He leaves Seattle with the city's crime rate at a historical 40-year low, despite resurgences in youth and gang violence, especially in the city's South End. Kerlikowske has maintained a national profile, with his interests especially focused on issues such as gun control, immigration and electronic data mining of private records.

...

Kerlikowske, a proponent of community-oriented policing, is credited with pushing for the use of less-lethal weapons, such as Taser stun guns, and improving police relationships with minority communities. In 2002, he worked with business leaders to launch the Seattle Police Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for police equipment and programs.

Kerlikowske's tenure was not without some controversy and drama. According to the Seattle Times, in September 2004 he allowed himself to be jolted with 50,000 volts of electricity to demonstrate the nonlethal efficiency of Taser guns.

In addition:

March 2002 -- The Seattle Police Officers' Guild votes no confidence in the chief, citing his public reprimand of an officer for being rude to a group of young jaywalkers while not disciplining commanders over the Mardi Gras riot. Nickels stands by the chief.

June 2007 -- A civilian-review-board report accuses Kerlikowske of repeatedly interfering in an internal investigation into the actions of a pair of officers, damaging the credibility of the police force to the point that increased oversight is needed. Kerlikowske defends his actions but says he is open to changes in the way the department polices itself.

The naming of Kerlikowske was greeted with cautious optimism by drug law reform proponents.

Back in 2003, Kerlikowske was asked about his views on a local ballot initiative to make marijuana possession the lowest law enforcement priority.

In response, he stated that "arresting people for possessing marijuana for personal use... is not a priority now."

The Drug Policy Alliance issued the following statement:

We're cautiously optimistic that Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske will support Obama's drug policy reform agenda.

What gives us hope is the fact that Seattle has been at the cutting edge of harm reduction and other drug policy reform developments in the United States over the last decade. The city's needle exchange programs are well established and harm reduction is well integrated in Seattle's approach to local drug problems. Marijuana has been legal for medical purposes for a decade. In 2003, Seattle voters passed a ballot initiative making marijuana arrests the lowest law enforcement priority. And the King County Bar Association has demonstrated national leadership in exploring alternatives to current prohibitionist policies.

While Gil Kerlikowske has not spoken out in favor of any of these reforms, he is clearly familiar with them and has not been a forceful opponent. Given the high regard in which he is held by other police chiefs around the country, Mr. Kerlikowske has the potential to provide much needed national leadership in implementing the commitments that Barack Obama made during the campaign.

As a presidential candidate, Senator Obama said the "war on drugs is an utter failure" and that he believes in "shifting the paradigm, shifting the model, so that focus more on a public health approach." He also called for eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, repealing the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs to reduce HIV/AIDS, and stopping the U.S. Justice Department from undermining state medical marijuana laws.

Kerlikowske has also served as Buffalo, NY's police commissioner and the chief of police for Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie, Florida, ABC News reports. He began his law enforcement career in 1972 as a police officer with the St. Petersburg Police in Florida.

Under Clinton, he worked for the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which provided grants to put more cops on the streets.