NASHVILLE -- Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske says one of his top priorities is curtailing abuse of prescription drugs -- such as the addictive painkiller OxyContin -- which are readily available in the U.S.
"We get overly concerned about drugs coming in, but the pharmaceuticals are here already," he said in an interview Wednesday with USA TODAY.
He says he'll push for more states to adopt prescription-monitoring programs, databases in which doctors and pharmacists log prescriptions for addictive drugs so law enforcement can track them.
Kerlikowske, who became director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy on May 7, described drug abuse as a "public health problem."
Yet the former Seattle police chief added, "That doesn't mean law enforcement doesn't have a role to play."
He said he was stunned to learn recently that more people in the U.S. die from drugs than from gunshot wounds.
"We're going to shout that from the rooftops," he said. "We have a national effort to combat swine flu. In the same way, we can bring all forces to bear on the drug problem."
Kerlikowske said he supports courts that offer treatment instead of prison for addicts and federal funding for needle-exchange programs to stop the spread of disease.
His approach departs from that of the Bush administration, which heavily funded law enforcement task forces and advocated for tough sentences for drug offenders.
The Obama administration wants to make sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine the same as those for crimes involving powder cocaine.
Currently, crack-related sentences are longer.
Attorney General Eric Holder also has limited prosecutions of sick people or caregivers who use or dispense marijuana for medical reasons.
He has said his agents will seek criminal charges only when both state and U.S. laws are violated.
During the Bush administration, agents raided several centers that dispense marijuana in California, where state law permits its medical use.
On his first trip outside Washington since assuming his new role, Kerlikowske told a law enforcement crowd attending a drug initiative conference Wednesday that marijuana should stay illegal, but public health officials -- not police -- should lead efforts to reduce illegal drug use.
"Legalization isn't in the president's vocabulary, and it certainly isn't in mine," he told 300 federal agents and law enforcement officials.
He sought to show strong support for law enforcement, making his first stop a 6:30 a.m. roll call at a Nashville Police Department precinct.
After speaking at the conference, Kerlikowske visited a drug court with a residential-treatment center.
He also toured a residence for women with addictions who were recently released from prison.
"The state of Tennessee has built all the prison cells it needs" but has not invested enough in treating drug abusers, Criminal Court Judge Seth Norman, who runs the Davidson County Drug Court, told Kerlikowske.
The new drug czar agreed: "Rotating people in and out and through the system doesn't make a lot of sense."
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.