Seattle Police Chief Takes Command of US Drug Policy

Caleb Nelson

“The war on drugs has been an utter failure and I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws…but I’m not someone who believes in legalization of marijuana.” – Barrack Obama in 2004 while running for US Senate

In Seattle about eight years ago, soon after Gil Kerlikowske became the city’s police chief, concerned citizens complained about JoAnna McKee’s home based co-op, where she grew medical marijuana and taught patients to grow their own. Rather than shutting down McKee’s operation, Kerlikowske’s director of police-community partnerships suggested she move it into a commercial area. This way under Washington state’s medical marijuana law, she could continue providing knowledge and support for people prescribed marijuana, and avoid offending her neighbors.

This kind of community solution characterizes Kerlikowske’s approach to law enforcement, and as Seattle’s top cop he has been credited with bringing the city’s crime rate to record lows. He takes everyone’s needs into consideration, and has proven himself to be flexible and understanding.This may be why President Obama recently made Kerlikowske his new drug czar, replacing John Walters. Oddly in almost nine years as Seattle’s police chief Kerlikowske spoke often about gun control and community policing, but he hardly ever talked about drugs.

Walters, who famously said in 2003 that arguments for prescribed medical marijuana make no more sense than arguments for medical crack, held to policies focused on imprisoning addicts and dealers alike. After becoming drug czar Kerlikowske promised to take a more balanced, science based approach, promoting treatment over punishment.

“The greatest contribution we can make toward stability would be to reduce our demand for illicit drugs,” he said.

Seattle activists who work on drug-reform issues called Kerlikowske smart and reasonable, and they noted that his police department has largely abided by a voter approved initiative that made marijuana possession the city’s lowest law enforcement priority.

Having policed a city that is known for its needle exchanges, lenient drug courts, methadone vans and annual Hempfest celebration, there is some hope that Kerlikowske will bring this Seattle sensibility to his new assignment.

The drug czar is no longer a cabinet position, but Kerlikowske will still have direct access to the president and the vice president, and also a seat in all meetings relating to national and international drug policy. This departure from the Bush administration’s policies illustrates a new more inwardly focused approach: reducing foreign drug supply by curbing domestic demand.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy was created in 1988 as a result of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act to direct national enforcement of US drug policy. The director of this office, known as the drug czar, establishes the policies and priorities of the Nation’s drug control program.

Kerlikowske, a 36 year law enforcement veteran, began his career in Florida, rising quickly to top positions in both the Fort Pierce and Fort St. Lucie police departments. He then became police commissioner in Buffalo NY, and worked with the Clinton administration as deputy director of the Justice Department office that promotes community policing.

In his twenties he worked as an undercover narcotics agent, and has seen drug’s damaging effects firsthand. His adopted son Jeffrey, now 39, dropped out of high school, and has been arrested repeatedly on drug and other charges since he was 18.

Fifty percent of the US prison population is currently incarcerated for drug offenses, costing $15 billion dollars annually. 775,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession last year alone. Proponents of marijuana decriminalization across the country are optimistic about Kerlikowske’s appointment.

“He is not mindlessly obstructionist, and I think by most accounts he’s a guy you can have a rational dialogue with,” said Bruce Mirken, of the Marijuana Policy Project, on an NBC interview. “That was absolutely not the case under George Bush’s drug czar John Walters who was frankly a pitchfork-wielding fanatic.”