Sunday, February 15, 2009

Obama Set to Name New Drug Czar

Seattle police chief gets the nod.

Drug reformers, hoping for the appointment of a public health official, expressed initial dismay at the news that President Barack Obama will nominate Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as the nation’s new “drug czar.”

As the president’s evident choice to head up the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Kerlikowske is not known for highlighting drug issues in national law enforcement circles, notes the Drug War Chronicle. “While we’re disappointed that President Obama seems poised to nominate a police chief instead of a major public heath advocate as drug czar,” said Drug Policy Alliance’s Ethan Nadelmann, “we’re cautiously optimistic that Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske will support Obama’s drug policy reform agenda.”

According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “He’s likely to be the best drug czar we’ve seen, but that’s not saying much,” Nadelmann said. “At least we know that when talk about needle exchanges and decriminalizing marijuana arrests, it’s not going to be the first time he’s heard about them.”

For those worried about a radical change in the nation’s drug policy, Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata sought to assure citizens that Kerlikowske is “not on a platform arguing for decriminalization of drugs or radical drug reform measures.”

A spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) told the Post-Intelligencer: “I would imagine that being a chief law-enforcement officer makes it very difficult for someone to speak out in favor of more progressive drug laws and drug policies.” However, former Seattle Police Chief and drug reform advocate Norm Stamper insisted that Kerlikowske was more inclined to support “research-driven and evidence-based conclusions about public policy.”

In “Advice for the New Drug Czar,” an article for the online edition of The American Prospect, drug policy experts Mark Kleiman of UCLA and Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago laid out their recommendations for Kerlikowske. Here is an example of their thinking:

--“You’ll be told that we have a national strategy resting on three legs: enforcement, prevention, and treatment. Don’t believe it. There is no coherent strategy. Enforcement, prevention and treatment are the names of three quarrelling constituency groups whose pressures you will sometimes need to resist....”

--“There are some real ‘drug wars’ raging: in Afghanistan, in Columbia, and in northern Mexico. Those wars matter terribly to the countries involved, but no outcome of those wars is likely to make the drug situation in the United States noticeably better or worse.”

--“Treatment needs to be more accessible and more accountable. Good news: even lousy treatment has benefits greater than its costs. Bad news: much of the treatment actually delivered is, in fact, pretty lousy. Demand to see results, and insist on rigorous evaluations. Focus resources on effective programs. It’s an outrage to have addicts dying of overdoses while on waiting lists for methadone treatment.”

--“Most primary care providers never perform highly cost-effective screening and brief intervention, because they’re neither trained for it nor paid for it. Many don’t think that dealing with drug abuse is in their job description; it needs to be.”

--“’Drug Czar’ is a silly title.”

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