The New Czar in Town

Obama chooses a drug czar who recognizes the war on drugs hasn’t worked.

Vice President Joe Biden and Gil Kerlikowske

Vice President Joe Biden sponsored the legislation that created the job 21 years ago, so it was fitting that on Wednesday he announced the Obama administration’s choice for drug czar: Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske. The announcement thrilled neither progressive anti-prohibition groups, which dislike the idea of a career cop in charge of drug policy, nor conservative anti-drug groups, which distrust Kerlikowske’s record on enforcement.

So, which is it? In nominating a cop, is Obama snubbing the left? Or is Kerlikowske the kind of squishy cop even liberals can love? Or is he another in a string of compromises, a bid for bipartisan support that will satisfy no one? Trick questions. Like Obama, Kerlikowske is, first and foremost, a pragmatist. His nomination is a victory not for any political faction but for common sense.

Both as a candidate and as president, Obama has repeatedly pledged allegiance to “what works.” And most analysts agree that, since its inception in the 1970s, the drug war has not worked. Research suggests that programs like DARE yield almost no benefits, while the medicinal use of marijuana yields many. Anti-drug propaganda has done little or nothing to curb domestic drug abuse, while the international drug trade continues to wreak havoc in key U.S. allies like Afghanistan and Mexico. Meanwhile, the Office of National Drug Control Policy soldiers on, as expensive and ineffective as ever.

If Kerlikowske’s record is any indication, he is just the man to clean up this mess. From a personal standpoint, he has experience with the issue: A son from a pervious marriage has a history of arrests, some of them drug-related. (This could lead to some awkward questions at his confirmation hearing.) Professionally, his record of lowering crime rates gives him instant credibility. Speaking approvingly of Kerlikowske, Barry McCaffrey, drug czar under Bill Clinton and a retired general, told Fox News: “If you really want to understand the drug issue, go talk to any police officer with more than five years on the force.”

Yet Kerlikowske is no get-tough-on-drugs zealot. When asked to help design a new police station as police chief in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Kerlikowske recommended making room for a library instead of a jail. He has long been a proponent of community policing, which he defines as “problem solving, decision making … and the utilizing and leveraging of the community.” And as police chief in Seattle, he instructed his officers to stand by during the annual HempFest, while thousands of civil disobedients smoked pot in the streets.

With this résumé, Kerlikowske might look like Bill O’Reilly’s worst nightmare (or Keith Olbermann’s secret crush). But Kerlikowske’s decisions were based on prudence and case-by-case analysis, not political ideology. In the case of the Port St. Lucie police station, Kerlikowske did not refuse to build a jail because of any anti-incarceration views but because “we [already] have a nice jail.” Though some dogmatists continued to decry community policing as “soft on crime,” Kerlikowske supported it—because community policing works.

In 2003, Seattle voters approved Initiative 75, making personal marijuana arrests “the city’s lowest law enforcement priority.” Kerlikowske, a consistent opponent of drug legalization, did not support the initiative. Once it became law, however, he honored it. As he explained at the time, “Arresting people for possessing marijuana for personal use is not a priority now.” (Only time will tell, but if marijuana arrests were “not a priority” in 2003, it is hard to see how they could be today.)

Enforcing old drug laws against the will of the voters would have been costly and distracting—not to mention illegal. But this has not stopped many other leaders, both local and federal, from doing just that. Over the past two decades, several states, including Washington, legalized marijuana for medical use. Licensed marijuana growers, meanwhile, have found their ostensibly legal farms raided by the Drug Enforcement Agency, a constitutionally questionable habit that was endorsed by the Bush White House.

Attorney General Eric Holder, when asked about the DEA raids, implied that they would not continue. Given Kerlikowske’s record as a nonobstructionist—he also honored his state’s medical-marijuana laws and needle-exchange programs—some onlookers see hopeful outlines of a message from the Obama administration: If states want to amend their drug laws, the federal government will not stand in their way.

Norm Stamper preceded Kerlikowske as Seattle police chief and is now a member of the drug-reform group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. According to Stamper, the appointment of a drug czar with nonobstructionist tendencies is of great significance. “I’m hopeful that if the voters in a given state said, ‘We want to decriminalize marijuana, or even legalize marijuana,’ that there’s at least the possibility that the new administration will respect that.”

No doubt, Kerlikowske has his work cut out for him. But at least there is reason to hope that he will bring a restrained, dispassionate, nondogmatic approach to the ONDCP. Contrast his approach with that of the outgoing drug czar, who considered marijuana growers “violent criminal terrorists,” and it’s easy to see why Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, is “cautiously optimistic.” Kerlikowske is “likely to be the best drug czar we’ve seen,” he said. “But that’s not saying much.”