WASHINGTON -- During his immersion in his new job, Gil Kerlikowske attended a focus group of 7-year-old girls and was mystified by their talk about "farm parties." Then he realized they meant "pharm parties" -- sampling pharmaceuticals from their parents' medicine cabinets. What he learned -- besides that young humans have less native sense than young dachshunds have -- is that his job has wrinkles unanticipated when he became director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
"People," he says, "want a different conversation" about drug policies. With his first report to the president early next year, he could increase the quotient of realism.
Law enforcement has a "can do culture" but it also instructs its practitioners about what cannot be done, at least by law enforcement alone. Kerlikowske, who was top cop in Buffalo and then Seattle, knows that officers sweeping drug users from cities' streets feel as though they are "regurgitating perps through the system."
He dryly notes that "not many people think the drug war is a success." Furthermore, the recession's toll on state budgets has concentrated minds on the costs of drug offense incarcerations -- costs that in some states are larger than expenditures on secondary education. Fortunately, the first drug courts were established two decades ago and today there are 2,300 nationwide, pointing drug policy away from punishment and toward treatment.
Kerlikowske is familiar with Portugal's experience since 2001 with decriminalization of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Nature made Kerlikowske laconic and experience has made him prudent, so he steers clear of the "L" word, legalization, even regarding marijuana.
Asked if he thinks that is a "gateway" drug leading to worse substances, he answers obliquely: "You don't find many heroin users who didn't start with marijuana." And he warns that more intense cultivation of marijuana is yielding a product with notably high THC content -- the potent ingredient.
In 1998, the United Nations, with its penchant for empty grandstanding, committed its members to "eliminating or significantly reducing" opium, cocaine and marijuana production by 2008, en route to a "drug-free world." Nowadays the U.N. is pleased that the drug trade has "stabilized."