Gil Kerlikowske is U.S. President Obama’s director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy—more commonly known as the U.S. “drug czar.” His long career in law enforcement included serving as police chief in two border cities: Buffalo and Seattle.
Q: In the November elections, two states—Washington and Colorado—voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use. President Obama has said that the U.S. government has “bigger fish to fry” than to go after recreational users in states where it is legal. Where do things stand with regard to producers and distributors of marijuana, which is still illegal under federal law?
A: You’ll continue to see enforcement against distributors and large-scale growers as the Justice Department has outlined. They will use their limited resources on those groups and not on going after individual users.
Q: You’ve written on the White House website that “coming out of the election, we are in the midst of a national conversation on marijuana.” Is the U.S. headed for a patchwork of policies, state by state?
A: I think a patchwork of policies would create real difficulties. We still have federal law that places marijuana as being illegal. The administration has not done a particularly good job of, one, talking about marijuana as a public health issue, and number two, talking about what can be done and where we should be headed on our drug policy.
Q: There was such an evolution on gay marriage within this administration that it’s hard not to think that something might change on marijuana.
A: I don’t look at marijuana as a human right, or a civil right, or even in the same venue as gay marriage. This is a public health issue. There are significant health concerns around marijuana from all the science, not ideology. I don’t see the legalization of drugs and making them widely available as a good thing, and I don’t think locking everyone up is a good thing either.
Q: When you took office in 2009 you said you wanted the Obama administration to drop the term “war on drugs.” Why?
A: It was mostly elected officials who would use “war on drugs.” But my colleagues—prosecutors, police chiefs, sheriffs, never really talked about it as a war on drugs—they would use the term “you can’t arrest your way out of this problem.” The “war on drugs” is a good bumper sticker, but we know that the drug problem is unbelievably complex. There is no bumper-sticker answer.
Q: Have you done more to deal with the medical side?
A: We helped shift federal funding so that more money has flowed into drug treatment and prevention programs. We have tried using the bully pulpit of the White House to talk about the disease of addiction and to talk about it in a public health model.
Q: What shaped your view in that direction?
A: I had been a narcotics detective and then a police chief in two large cities that had, like most of our large cities, a drug problem. We would regurgitate the same people through the system. They’d be arrested for crimes, but they’d have a drug problem. They’d go off to jail and then they’d be back. Often without treatment, without after-care, and unsurprisingly they’d be back into crime.
Q: So why not just treat drugs as a medical issue, the way alcohol abuse is treated. Why not just drop the criminalization?
A: We arrest about 2.4 million people in this country a year for alcohol. We arrest less than 700,000 people for marijuana—and for all drugs, only 1.3 million. Alcohol is perfectly legal. So making drugs available without any sanction would only lead to more abuse.
– Read the entire article at Maclean’s.