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Obama Signals New direction with Drug Czar Nominee

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According to both local and White House sources, President Barack Obama will nominate Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy--a cabinet-level position commonly referred to as the Drug Czar--an appointment that could signal a substantive departure from our nation's current marijuana-focused, interdiction-heavy drug policy, and a more realistic and progressive approach toward the issue of drug abuse in general.

Within the context of career law enforcement professionals, I think it safe to label Kerlikowske a "progressive." During his ten-years at the helm of the Seattle Police Department and his current term as president of the Major Chiefs Association, Kerlikowske has been a vocal advocate for gun control and community policing, while serving as a prominent critic of the use of intrusive data mining techniques as a tool for combating domestic terrorism. But while he hasn't been particularly outspoken on drug control policy, Kerlikowske's relative silence is encouraging in itself, considering the progressive mores and statutes of the city whose laws he has enforced for the past decade.

While Kerlikowske opposed a 2003 citizens initiative making marijuana in Seattle a "low priority crime," calling the measure vague and confusing (and... well... most initiatives are), he emphasized to local reporters at the time that marijuana possession and use already was a low priority, and in fact, Seattle's already low marijuana prosecution rate has dropped even further since the measure's passage, indicating a responsiveness to the will of the voters. Indeed, local drug reform advocates seem downright ecstatic about Kerlikowske's appointment:

"Oh God bless us," said Joanna McKee, co-founder and director of Green Cross Patient Co-Op, a medical-marijuana patient-advocacy group. "What a blessing -- the karma gods are smiling on the whole country, man."

McKee said Kerlikowske knows the difference between cracking down on the illegal abuse of drugs and allowing the responsible use of marijuana.

Kerlikowske's laissez faire approach toward low-level possession fits well with our region's libertarian streak and its progressive attitudes toward medical marijuana, needle exchanges and other drug issues. Seattle has long been home to one of the largest Hempfests in the nation, where otherwise law abiding participants routinely light up in front of police officers without fear of arrest. Meanwhile, Kerlikowske's predecessor, Chief Norm Stamper, has established himself since leaving office as one of the nation's most outspoken advocates for comprehensive drug policy liberalization and reform. Yet despite the dire warnings of drug war hard liners, Seattle's crime rate has dropped to a 40-year low during Kerlikowske's tenure.

Kerlikowske's office has not avoided controversy, particularly over accusations of lax discipline of officers, but he is widely admired. Speaking on our Podcasting Liberally podcast last night, Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, a former police officer, and current chair of the committee that oversees the police department, agrees that Kerlikowske is "no Bill Bennett," and credits him for a "progressive" approach toward drug control issues:

Clearly the drug war as it has been waged traditionally in our country over the last 20, 30 years is not working, and there is a lot of collateral damage that's unintended but is real, that is not helping us in that regard. Chief Kerlikowske himself has been advocating some diversion programs, pre-arrest strategies, that are quite progressive.

Of course, Kerlikowske is no Norm Stamper either, but given the history of the Drug Czar office, his appointment should hearten those advocating for a more humane, rational and effective national drug control policy.

[David Goldstein blogs on WA state politics at HorsesAss.org]