A step up in Drug Czars

A STEP UP IN DRUG CZARS…. It was encouraging to hear that President Obama would lower the role “drug czar,” downgrading the position from cabinet rank. It’s even more encouraging to learn more about Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, the president’s choice for the job. Andrew Marantz described the Kerlikowske nomination as “a victory … for common sense.”

Both as a candidate and as president, Obama has repeatedly pledged allegiance to “what works.” And most analysts agree that, since its inception in the 1970s, the drug war has not worked. Research suggests that programs like DARE yield almost no benefits, while the medicinal use of marijuana yields many. Anti-drug propaganda has done little or nothing to curb domestic drug abuse, while the international drug trade continues to wreak havoc in key U.S. allies like Afghanistan and Mexico. Meanwhile, the Office of National Drug Control Policy soldiers on, as expensive and ineffective as ever.

If Kerlikowske’s record is any indication, he is just the man to clean up this mess. From a personal standpoint, he has experience with the issue: A son from a previous marriage has a history of arrests, some of them drug-related. (This could lead to some awkward questions at his confirmation hearing.) Professionally, his record of lowering crime rates gives him instant credibility. […]

Kerlikowske is no get-tough-on-drugs zealot. When asked to help design a new police station as police chief in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Kerlikowske recommended making room for a library instead of a jail.

Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marantz he’s “cautiously optimistic.” Kerlikowske is “likely to be the best drug czar we’ve seen,” he said. “But that’s not saying much.”

It’s not necessarily a high-profile, front-burner issue, but if you’re looking for areas in which the Obama administration will offer a clear break with the Bush administration, keep an eye on the new team’s emphasis on drug treatment over incarceration, state experimentation on decriminalization, and alternative drug courts.