Obama's Drug Czar Sails

The U.S. government officially has a new drug czar: Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske sailed through his Senate confirmation process today on a 91-1 vote Thursday after passing un-contentiously through the Senate Judiciary Committee, which approved him without a recorded vote in a business meeting off the Senate floor in late April.

At first glance, one might expect Kerlikowske to draw at least a little bit of fire. He's the top local law enforcer for a city where marijuana has been essentially decriminalized--the home of an annual Hempfest that sees a hazy cloud of weed smoke, general cannabis revelry, and few arrests.

But Kerlikowske, as it has been noted, is just following orders: the city's voters passed an initiative making marijuana the city's "lowest law enforcement priority," and Kerlikowske has implemented the policy faithfully, despite the fact that he did not support it. It's tough to argue against a law enforcement official who faithfully implements the law, whether or not he agrees with it--and perhaps that's why few in the Senate did.

Kerlikowske comes into his new position at an interesting time for U.S. drug policy. The country faces a Mexican drug war whose violence threatens to brim over into the U.S.; President Obama promised on the campaign trail to ease up on federal medical marijuana raids, though some raids were conducted shortly after he took office; marijuana is now a hot topic--with polls showing more support of legalization (see Nate Silver's breakdown here), with the drug war fueling some arguments to legalize in California, and with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger saying this week that it's time to debate the regulation and taxation of marijuana to ease government debt.

Marijuana groups, consequently, were optimistic today that Kerlikowske would help usher in a new era of national drug policy, one they have hoped will accompany Obama's presidency. It is precisely his pragmatism that they admire in Kerlikowske, whom they contrast starkly to the nation's previous drug czar and their arch nemesis, John Walters.

"The differences between he and Mr. Walters can't be made enough without getting into dissertation length," NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre told me today over the phone. "Mr. Walters was a right-wing social ideologue with no law enforcement experience at all. He was Bill Bennett's Mini-Me at best," St. Pierre said, referencing the nation's first drug czar, appointed by President George H.W. Bush. Walters formerly served as Bennett's chief of staff.

Walters, St. Pierre says, conducted an ideological campaign against marijuana, making it a top priority. He campaigned against state-level marijuana initiatives and refused to meet with marijuana advocacy groups like NORML, according to St. Pierre.

"Gil, compared to Walters, is really night and day. Gil's not going to be hanging out here at NORML at 4:20, but...we might actually get to meet the man, he might actually invite us into his public offices. It's a competle tabula rasa with this guy."

Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, was less enthusiastic but nonetheless pleased. "I think we are watching this with an open mind. He can't be worse than his predecessor," Mirken told me. "By most accounts, Chief Kerlikowske has been somebody, while certainly not a reformer, not the sort of person we would necessarily choose, he sees to be somebody you can at least have a rational dialogue with."

Mirken and St. Pierre support forms of legalization and oppose "prohibition," as they deem our nation's current laws. These views are far to the left of where the administration lies, and it is extremely unlikely that President Obama is interested in reforming America's marijuana laws at present, but at issue are state-level initiatives that have seen some success. The groups are hoping, tentatively, that Kerlikowske's presence at the top will create some room for their policies at the bottom.

"Certainly one of the things that we encounter from time to time is, 'Oh we can't do this, the feds won't allow it,'" Mirken said. "If there are increasing signs of flexibility on the federal level, that will make the dialogue easier."