According to the Washington Post President Obama is set to nominate Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as Drug Czar today. The Post also reports that the Obama administration will remove the position's Cabinet-level status -- overturning an elevation of the office under President George W. Bush. The Post says the decision to nominate him was delayed over the last month as information of drug arrests involving his stepson emerged.
While I'm disappointed that President Obama has nominated a police chief instead of a major public health advocate as drug czar, I'm cautiously optimistic that Kerlikowske will support President Obama's drug policy reform agenda.
What gives me 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 syringe exchange programs are well established and harm reduction is well integrated in Seattle's approach to local drug policy. Marijuana has been legal in Washington State 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 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, Kerlikowske has the potential to provide much needed national leadership in implementing the commitments that Barack Obama made during the campaign. He also surely recognizes that substance abuse or run-ins with the law can touch anyone, including his own family. He will hopefully advocate for treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent drug law offenders.
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 we 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. The Drug Policy Alliance will do everything in our power to ensure that Kerlikowske is thoroughly vetted at his confirmation hearings, and held accountable to the President's commitments and standards.
Ethan Nadelmann is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance