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POLITICS-US: New Drug Czar Praised by Reform Groups

Marina Litvinsky and Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON, Mar 12 2009 (IPS) - U.S. President Barack Obama’s pick for his new drug czar signals a radical shift from the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, by focusing on treatment for drug offenders rather than jail time.

On Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden announced the nomination of R. Gil Kerlikowske, the chief of police in the northwestern city of Seattle, for the post of director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), as the drug czar is formally known.

“[N]ever has it been more important to have a national drug control strategy guided by sound principles of public safety and public health,” said Obama in a statement announcing the appointment.

If confirmed by the Senate, Kerlikowske, a 36-year police veteran, will emphasise preventing drug use in the U.S. over combating the supply of illegal drugs from foreign countries.

“The success of our efforts to reduce the flow of drugs is largely dependent on our ability to reduce demand for them,” Kerlikowske said in a ceremony at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Unlike in previous administrations, the position of drug control director will not be a Cabinet position, intended to give Biden a larger role on the issue, an administration official told the Washington Post.

Biden is a more than two-decade veteran of the drug war and helped to set up the current ONDCP structure in the 1980s.

The war on drugs was declared by President Richard Nixon almost 40 years ago. After being enthusiastically carried out since then, analysts say attention and funding to the drug problem waned after the attacks of 9/11.

The Obama administration’s promotion of treatment and outreach comes as a sharp departure from the policies of the Bush administration. Under Bush, money to international programmes doubled, while funding for prevention and treatment fell by one quarter, John Carnevale, an economist who worked at the Office of Drug Control Policy under three presidents, told the Washington Post.

The change in focus comes at a time when many say the U.S.’s war on drugs has failed.

In New York, the state assembly is moving to dismantle a set of drug laws dating to the 1970s that are among the most draconian in the country, with mandatory penalties for drug possession and sale equivalent to second-degree murder.

“I can’t think of a criminal justice strategy that has been more unsuccessful than the Rockefeller drug laws,” New York Governor David Patterson noted in January.

Critics also point to the continued narco-violence in Mexico, where gangland-style executions and kidnappings have plagued the border region with the U.S.

In mid-February, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy issued a report, “Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift,” calling for a review of U.S. prohibitionist strategy, which it says has major deficiencies. The report also examined the benefits and drawbacks of the harm reduction strategy followed by the European Union, with a key recommendation to treat addicts as patients in the public health system.

Seattle has been at the forefront of harm reduction drug reform while Kerlikowske was at the helm of the police department, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a non-profit group.

“Kerlikowske actually lived in the real world,” said St. Pierre, praising the appointment. Former Bush drug czar John P. Walters, on the other hand, “was a moral zealot” and “couldn’t say the word harm reduction.”

Kerlikowske is seen as sympathetic to these policies partly because he has faced issues of drug use both in professional and personal capacities.

“Our nation’s drug problem is one of human suffering,” said Kerlikowske at a ceremony announcing his appointment. “[A]s a police officer but also in my own family, I have experienced the effects that drugs can have.”

Kerlikowske’s stepson, Jeffrey Kerlikowske, 39, has been arrested several times in the past on drug charges.

Obama himself has admitted to past drug use, saying that as a young man he smoked marijuana: “I inhaled frequently…that was the point,” said Obama, in contrast to Pres. Bill Clinton’s campaign statement that he had tried, but not inhaled, marijuana.

Obama also wrote in his book that he used “a little blow [cocaine] when [he] could afford it.” It was a candid admission in light of Bush’s refusal to discuss what, according to many accounts, was his regular cocaine use as a young man.

Understanding that regular people use drugs and focusing on domestic demand, however, will not solve all the ills wrought by drugs and the drug trade, especially internationally.

“Even with the best policy in place, the impact on reduction of demand is going to take a long time,” said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy and director of the Andean programme at the Inter-American Dialogue. “This is no solution to the immediate crisis in countries like Mexico.”

He added that the “drug war formula has failed, but that doesn’t mean that [new policy should] ignore [the global] side of it.”

It is not clear specifically what sort of balance the Obama administration will strike between international and domestic drug issues.

Obama, has however, won praise from drug groups both for his appointment of Kerlikowske and his early steps towards reforming drug policy.

Late last month, Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, announced that the administration would be following through on a campaign promise to end federal raids on California’s medical marijuana dispensaries.

Pot has been a legal form of medical treatment in California since 1996, but Bush instituted a policy of having the Drug Enforcement Agency raid the stores that provided marijuana to patients because the drug remains illegal under federal laws.

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