When the news broke that Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske had applied for a new job as Chicago's police superintendent, drug policy reformers began salivating in unison for the inevitable debate over who would replace him in Washington, D.C. That discussion is premature, but the situation has nevertheless helped to highlight why no one in their right mind would ever want to be the Drug Czar.
Chicago Sun-Times looks at the qualifications of the top candidates for the superintendent position, and summarizes Kerlikowske's Drug Czar career with cutting precision (emphasis mine):
Age 61, U.S. drug czar under President Obama since 2009 and former Seattle police chief and Buffalo, N.Y., police commissioner. As drug czar, he has opposed legalization of marijuana. He's also considered an innovator of community policing.
The brutal irony of this is that Kerlikowske has spent much of his time in D.C. trying to avoid getting into a debate over marijuana laws. He began by insisting on numerous occasions that "legalization isn't in my vocabulary," and even managed to remain largely invisible during the heated debate over Prop 19 in California.
The Drug Czar's reputation as a vigorous opponent of marijuana legalization exists only because he's been repeatedly pressured to address the topic as it climbs to new levels of political interest and public support. He's said some ridiculous things, but he wasn't exactly putting out press releases about the evils of pot. He was reluctantly doing his job, which actually legally requires him to oppose legalization.
The point here isn't that Kerlikowske deserves recognition for being less of a jerk than his predecessors. What matters is that it's really rather revealing to find the Drug Czar's career being defined by an issue he never wanted to talk about in the first place. He is supposed to be our nation's top anti-drug official. He's supposed to provide leadership and make key decisions, not serve as a disoriented political punching bag for the marijuana reform movement.
It speaks to the spiraling weakness of the office itself that all the Drug Czar can do is wag his finger as the nation looks beyond his long-since discredited agency and debates solutions to the drug war devastation that our Drug Czars have only ever managed to make worse. More than that, it speaks to the political relevance of the marijuana debate that one's position on this issue now overshadows anything else they accomplish at the helm of America's drug policy bureaucracy.
There's a lesson in this for future Drug Czars that should not be taken lightly. No matter who you are and what skills you think you bring to the table, your job will be to stand in the path of a political tidal wave that can no longer be pushed back by the propaganda tactics they teach you in Drug Czar orientation training. You will be remembered for nothing other than your opposition to fixing our marijuana laws, a fight that you will be perceived as having lost decisively when major recreational legalization measures pass in multiple states during your term.
Indeed, of the many signs we've seen that marijuana reform is fast approaching, the fact that the Drug Czar is applying for other work may well be the most encouraging yet.