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New Drug Czar a Chance to Do Things Right

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The Obama administration's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, was recently made director of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Whether acting drug czar Michael Botticelli gets the job permanently or President Obama nominates someone new, the next drug czar should fight to undo the mass incarceration and racial disparities that are the result of the failed war on drugs. In recent months U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has taken action to reduce the use of long mandatory minimum sentences and give states room to legalize marijuana with less federal interference. This helps cement the burgeoning national consensus that, in his words, "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason." President Obama can further cement this consensus by appointing a drug czar who will support Holder and pursue evidence-based drug policies.

The position of drug czar was meant to coordinate and improve U.S. drug policy, but traditionally drug czars have been little more than propagandists for the failed drug war -- ignoring science, opposing reform, and stifling debate (President Bush's drug czar compared drug users to terrorists, for instance). Kerlikowske was somewhat of a refreshing change. He supported the Obama administration's reform agenda, most notably endorsing overdose prevention, syringe access programs, sentencing reform, and making it easier for former drug offenders to reintegrate into society. But he also supported many policies that are not evidence-based, such as prescription drug databases and drug courts, while opposing evidence-based policies such as medical marijuana. Still, he deserves credit for changing the national rhetoric, urging people to no longer use the term "war" on drugs and calling for a more health-oriented approach to drug use.

The next drug czar should further change the dialogue. He or she should follow Holder's lead and call it a national disgrace that the U.S. incarcerates more of it citizens than any other country in the world. And he or she should speak out against the new Jim Crow, the set of punitive criminal justice policies that not only incarcerates disproportionate numbers of people of color but makes it legal to discriminate against them in employment and housing, and in some instances even strips them of the right to vote for life. The drug czar's office sets short- and long-term goals for reducing drug use rates -- so why not also set goals for reducing drug arrests and racial disparities in the criminal justice system?

The next drug czar doesn't have to be a scientist or have a medical background to be effective, but he or she should understand science and be clear about what research shows. Most people who use alcohol, marijuana, cocaine or other drugs use them rarely or moderately with little to no harm to themselves or others. Most drug use is not problematic -- and most people who use drugs are not addicted and do not need treatment. Only 9 percent of people who try marijuana become dependent on it, while only 15 percent of people who try cocaine become dependent on it (roughly the same as the addiction rate for alcohol). Of those who do have problems and are trying to quit, relapse is a normal and anticipated aspect of recovery. Simply speaking these truths would begin to make the drug czar's office more evidence-based.

Whoever the president appoints as the next drug czar should be a consensus builder who can productively engage with the leaders in U.S. states and foreign nations who want to have a constructive dialogue about moving beyond punitive drug policies.

Colorado and Washington are legally regulating marijuana like alcohol. Portugal has more than a decade of experience running a model health-based approach toward illegal drugs. New Zealand is erecting a regulatory structure for handling synthetic drugs. Uruguay recently became the first country in the world to legalize and regulate the production and sale of marijuana. Current and former presidents in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and other countries have called for a global debate about regulation vs. criminalization. The next drug czar should even-handedly examine what policies work around the world and foster open debate.

With his next drug czar, President Obama has an opportunity to make history by appointing someone who will support sentencing reform, face the reality of racial disparities, respect science, and work with leaders who want a new approach. This person should follow in the footsteps already laid out by Attorney General Holder. The Obama administration has an opportunity to leave a lasting drug policy legacy; hopefully they won't squander it.

Bill Piper is the director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.