Thursday, May 21, 2009

Kerlikowske vs. Walters

While the newest director of the ONDCP, Gil Kerlikowske, isn't likely to be advocating for legalization anytime soon - I think he may be taking us in the right direction - toward actually caring about substance abuse.
"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," he said. "We're not at war with people in this country."
For the past 8 years the focus of the ONDCP has been honed on marijuana. And we've most certainly been at war with people that use drugs. Marijuana, then drug czar John Walters would say, is as dangerous as crack. He opposed state medical marijuana laws (again comparing it to "medical crack") and has spoken out against states making marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority. But Kerlikowske is different. In this interview with the Wall Street Journal, Kerlikowske was asked:

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.

Without a doubt, Walters would have answered marijuana to that question. He may have thrown meth in their too but not without claiming that marijuana leads to meth. Kerlikowske doesn't even mention marijuana. He states the truth - prescription drugs and their diversion are a serious problem. He's also smart to look at this regionally rather than create a blanket campaign against a single drug.

Check out this 2003 article from the Seattle Times concerning Seattle's lowest law enforcement priority ballot question. You'll see that Kerlikowske opposed the initiative for an almost sensible reason: Arresting people for possessing marijuana for personal use, says Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, is not a priority now. Officers aren't now bringing in everyone they see smoking a joint, he said.

Kerlikowske at least promises to take his job more seriously than Walters. He doesn't have to support legalization for me to get behind policies that make sense. Furthermore, I don't think full out legalization is necessary for us to make improvements with treating drug addiction (though it sure would help a lot) because as LEAP's Peter Christ says "Legalizing drugs is not the answer to our drug problem. Legalizing drugs is the answer to our crime problem." The drug problem, unfortunately, isn't going anywhere - its here to stay - legalized drugs or not. But we can stop throwing gas on the fire now.

If Kerlikowske is ready to put our money where his mouth is - we'll see a campaign from the ONDCP that shows needle exchange programs work to reduce disease transmissions and provide places where addicts can go to get help and eventually - off drugs. We'll see funding for law enforcement decrease and treatment funding increase (you'll see here that Obama's budget, while increasing treatment funding, also decreases prevention funding and unfortunately calls for more $$ for law enforcement). Talking dogs and flying aliens warning our kids about pot will be replaced with realistic drug education that focuses on America's real drug problems - not support for a witch-hunt of marijuana users.

Deprioritization is key at this point. We can't focus on marijuana anymore and I think our new drug czar knows this. At least that much leaves me optimistic.


Matthew Potter said...

Great post JP. You make some very reasonable points. Alot of drug policy reformers are getting discouraged, but I think there are definitely still positives that we can look at.

That said, there will still be a war on American people in that swat raids will continue to be overused and people will still go to jail, so if anything, now is the time for us to work even harder.

Jonathan Perri said...

I totally agree Matt. If Kerlikowske thinks we're going to shut up just because he stops using the term "War on Drugs" and doesn't change any policies - he's mistaken.