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May 14, 2009 -- Wall Street Journal (US)

Q&A With the New Drug Czar

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Gil Kerlikowske, the new director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy sat down with The Wall Street Journal for his first interview since his confirmation last week.

What are your priorities?

The priorities for me and the direction from the vice president is clear, to have ONDCP be back front and center on the coordination issues and the policy issues for the federal government. Being talked to for the job by the man that authored the legislation goes a long way.

What do you mean when you talk about how our drug efforts have been in a silo with either/or choices?

The either/or to me has been you either support law enforcement and money and funds and resources, that includes international, border protection and domestic, or you support treatment and whose going to pay the cost of treatment. What I'd like to do is break down those barriers that kind of exist. It really isn't an either/or.

The other part of breaking down the barrier is to completely and forever end the war analogy, the war on drugs.

Since I used to stand in front of the helicopter for President Nixon who brought the term in vogue, it's fitting that I'm almost back in the same spot and trying to put an end to the war analogy.

Why is it important to you to stop using the analogy?

Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a war on drugs, or a war on a product, people see a war as a war on them, a war on individuals and we're not at war with people in this country so I think we need to be more comprehensive.

If we're not successful in improving on the addiction rate we have in this country and how we get people treated for drugs and return them back to the streets, it paints a very dark picture in the future, especially with the economy where it is.

What's the number one drug problem?

Well [illegal] prescription drug use is rising and one problem I want to shout about. At the federal level it's easy to look at things nationally but drug issues are different depending on the geography. In some places meth may be far more serious, even though on a national scale it doesn't appear that way. In Appalachia Oxycotin may be far more serious. I want to look at things regionally and in a narrower focus than in a national focus.

What steps should the administration be taking?

In some ways the administration has already taken some steps. There was a recognition of bringing in somebody that has a background in law enforcement and at the local level. All the good ideas aren't teed up from inside the Beltway. There's also the recognition that resources in the future are going to be needed and also the recognition that there needs to be a broader base view of our drug problem.

How will your policy be different?

It has to be more than just being visible. I'm not a charismatic speaker going across the country. There has to be a plan. We need to make this office more visible while we're doing the coordination and we have to do a strategic plan. People aren't going to just rally around the flag over 'well we need to reduce the demand.'

Others in this post, notably Gen. Barry McCaffrey, have said we can't arrest our way out of the problem, but little changed. What makes you think you can do it?

One reason frankly is the economic crisis. It is forcing us to think about other things. I look at a couple projects I wouldn't put my stamp on right now but I think are worth watching. One is the High Point North Carolina model and the other is the model out of Hawaii. And the third thing is that when you team people up like we did in Seattle. Our arrests in Seattle for drugs are down to levels of the early '90s and our crime is down to 1967 level. We teamed up police officers and department of corrections personnel and targeted the most problematic population.

What would you do instead?

Seattle had one of the highest per capita auto theft rates. You only have finite resources so changed the way we thought about auto theft. We had the top 10 auto thieves, and as one got knocked off another one took their place. Now auto theft is down probably 60%. What about doing that with the most problematic drug-abusing folks who are in need of some kind of intervention? They're the ones causing the most harm to themselves, the most harm to society. I would look at using finite resources on those folks who are the most problematic population.

What is law enforcement's role in treatment?

The research tells me if you walk in for drug treatment and either knock on the door or go in with handcuffs on the level of effectiveness is the same. The biggest funnel to treatment is the criminal-justice system. That's part of that silo -- treatment not talking to criminal justice as well as they should.

Are there any incidents in your past in law enforcement that helped you evolve?

I had a great fellowship with the Justice Department. One of my field trips was to go to Oakland and go out with the narcotics officers on search warrants. Here's a mother and two or three kids and two or three people dealing cocaine and these terrified, crying kids are there. It does make you recognize the breadth and depth of the problem versus somebody's whose dealing X amount of drugs.

Do you support legalization?

No. I've never advocated legalization and certainly the president has made it clear that's his position.

Where did the perception come from that you are permissive in drug enforcement?

The perception is that Seattle is this very tolerant city, but when I talk to my colleagues around the country and they look at what are your resources for law enforcement, targeting adults for small, personal amounts of marijuana, it isn't high on the radar screen when you have X amount of bodies. You can look at most prosecutors across the country and they have filing standards. Police departments aren't going to say no, don't arrest, but are you going to take an officer off the street for four hours or are they going to choose to take themselves off the street for four hours to book somebody for a small amount of marijuana? It's less about tolerance.

How you did police Seattle's Hempfest gathering?

Hempfest started 10 years before I became chief and it's been policed the same way every year. I don't think the way they police Hempfest with a small amount of police resources is much different than policing a rock concert. They don't go charging off into the middle of a rock concert because there is use of marijuana. Hempfest hasn't been an issue about violence, which is our first priority and precinct captains and lieutenants have policed it consistently the same way.

One of the programs you support strongly is "Fight Crime: Invest in Kids." How would you take those crime-prevention efforts and use them at ONDCP?

It's the unexpected messenger. No one expected police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, to show up in state legislatures and show up here on Capital Hill and advocate for money for early-childhood programs. In Olympia they thought at first we were there to ask for more police cars. I would take that model, which I believe has been unbelievably successful and tell my colleagues they should advocate strongly for treatment and rehabilitation.

Why do you see the drug problem as a public-health issue?

THE ONDCP under President Bush also saw this as a public-health issue. I think we moved, not as much from an administrative standpoint but a collective-wisdom standpoint. We moved from 'it's a police problem' or 'a criminal justice problem' to 'it's a criminal justice, public health and social policy problem' to 'it's a public-health problem.' I think that's what I've seen in past ONDCP writings.

How do you feel about needle exchanges?

I think needle exchange programs are part of a complete public-health model for dealing with addiction. Some people get the impression folks just walk in and exchange needles or get clean needles and you do want to reduce HIV and Hepatitis C and other transmittable diseases but you also would like to see, which those in Buffalo and Seattle do, access to treatment, access to counseling.

On the campaign trail, the president supported lifting the ban on federal funds for needle-exchange programs. The ban lift hasn't happened yet. Will it?

I don't know. It is definitely one of the things I'll be finding out and looking at.

How will you work with Homeland Security on the drug problem on the southwestern border?

[Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano] asked me prior to my confirmation that ONDCP become more involved in our role for coordination so after I find my way around, after a couple days, I'll meet with her.

I don't want to lose sight of the fact that drug issues are all over the country.

Is there a personal connection to your world view?

I think I can talk to just about any adult in any social, economic or race setting in this country and they can tell me about a friend, a relative, a next door neighbor with a problem. Between my work and my life experience I think being a lot older now I look at things with a little bit different perspective than I did as a young narcotics detective whose job was make seizures and make arrests. I think that's true with so many people I've worked with.

Do you support the administration's stance on ending the crack-cocaine disparity?

Nobody wants a drug dealer in front of the house but they also don't want to call and say we're going to report this person and this person goes away 25 years and those folks are going to have to raise his kids. They're going to have to take care of that house, etc., they want the problem stopped. Police departments need people to trust them. They need people to give them information and if they think the perception is it's a biased or unfair system this takes away from that. I know the folks on capital hill and in the administration are looking to change that.

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