What Can Kerlikowske Do as Drug Czar?

Peter The Great was czar of Russia
As Obama's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske will be pretty limited in his ability to advocate for reforms. As we noted earlier, the office is legally prohibited from advocating for the reclassification of current illegal drugs, including for medical purposes.

"Most people that are working on drug policy reform wish there wasn't a drug czar," says Alison Holcomb, Director of the Washington ACLU's Drug Policy Project. "If there is going to be a drug czar, they wish it would be someone from the public health world, who would turn our laws toward a public health model."

Nevertheless, Holcomb says there are signs that Kerlikowske could be good for the job, and meaningful reforms he could push.

Calling the ACLU's experiences with the Seattle Police Department "fairly positive," she recalls an appearance by Kerlikowske at a criminal justice reform summit the Washington State Bar Association put on at Seattle University in October. "[ACLU Deputy Director] Jennifer Shaw put our reclassification bill in front of the council, and Kerlikowske said, 'This is a great idea. We already have I-75.' I think that's indicative of the approach he takes to drug laws." (We left a message with the SPD to confirm Kerlikowske's position on the bill, but have yet to receive a response.)

While she notes that most meaningful changes will require action by Congress, Holcomb says she'd like to see Kerlikowske use his office to advocate for "repealing the federal ban on [federal funding for] syringe exchange," eliminating disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentences," and "shifting a lot of resources away from the international interdiction efforts that are leading to insane violence in Mexico and using that money to do health-based education and treatment here in the US."

Needle exchanges are a well-established means of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS but have been prohibited by Congress from receiving federal funding since 1988, because of fears of condoning drug use. Meanwhile, sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine--crack offenses carry much longer sentences--have led to huge racial disparities in incarceration, as those sentenced for crack offenses are overwhelmingly black (even though most crack users are white or Latino). And interdiction efforts have not only led to turf wars abroad, but have failed to reduce domestic drug supply and to stop Mexican cartles from growing their bud here.

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