The Mixed Legacy of Obama's Drug Czar

There's been a revolution in marijuana policy since Gil Kerlikowske took office in 2009. Has he moved with the times, or is he stuck in the past?
Tomas Bravo/Reuters

It might as well have been a lifetime ago when Gil Kerlikowske began his job as the nation's top drug official back in 2009.

When President Obama appointed him to be director of the Office of National Drug Control Policya position known as the "drug czar"only a dozen-plus states had legalized medical marijuana; a poll showing a minority of Americans support legalization could still be considered "record breaking"; and the disparity in sentences for users of crack and users of cocaine was still 100-1. The idea that two states would soon fully legalize the recreational use of marijuana seemed absurd.

Kerlikowske was fresh off a gig as police chief in Seattle, a city known for experimenting with progressive drug programs, giving reformers some hope and drug warriors some heartburn. But after a tenure that proved to be relatively conventional, Kerlikowske has been tapped to head Customs and Border Protection, and is expected to be replaced by someone who could represent a sea change in federal drug policy.

When Kerlikowske was first appointed, reformers hoped it signaled a shift from the typical federal approach emphasizing arrest and prosecution to a more modern one, centered around education and prevention. It was a notion Kerlikowske had paid considerable lip service to, promising in his first interview as drug czar to end the "war on drugs" and, later, to promote public health solutions and a "21st century" approach.

People on the enforcement side of things worried that would come at the expense of law enforcement. As it turns out, they needn't have worried.

"He's been an extremely valuable partner and someone we could reliably expect to work with us, cooperate with us, and apprise us of where the administration was headed," said Jim Pasko, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest law-enforcement labor organization. "We were very happy with him."

The White House budget for 2014 devotes 57 percent of drug-control spending to punishment and interdiction while just 43 percent went to treatment and prevention. Kerlikowske has noted such numbers increased treatment and prevention funding from previous years, and there's some truth to that. But look a little further back, and you'll see ONDCP is just now bringing this ratio into line with about where George W. Bush had it in fiscal year 2004.

Marijuana Majority spokesman Tom Angell was underwhelmed by what Kerlikowske billed as progress. "If the administration really believes drug abuse is a health issue that we can't arrest our way out of, they need to put their money where their mouth is and stop emphasizing devoting so many resources to the same old failed 'lock 'em up' policies," Angell said. "It's quite disconcerting that spending for the Bureau of Prisons is going up at a time when the attorney general of the United States says we are incarcerating far too many people for far too long at too great a cost."

It's not just Kerlikowske's record on marijuana that reformers take issue with. The number of overdose deaths from heroin has increased dramatically in recent years, growing 45 percent between 2006 and 2010, according to ONDCP. The uptick in deaths has been shown to be correlated with the the recent crackdown on prescription drugs. Kerlikowske has admitted that heroin "was not on the radar screen" during most of Obama's first term, according to The Washington Post, and that he "didn't do everything I should have" to raise awareness of the problem.

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Lucia Graves is a reporter at National Journal.

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