Obama's Pick for Drug Czar Hails from 'Cutting Edge' of Harm Reduction Approach to Drug Reform

President Obama has named Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), colloquially known as the drug czar's office, a White House official confirmed Thursday. It is not clear when the official announcement will be made.


It is also not clear whether ONDCP will retain its position as a cabinet-level entity, which it has been under recent administrations. That, too, will be cleared up when the official announcement is made, the official said. The drug czar possibly being demoted could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on his proclivities.

How Kerlikowske will behave as drug czar is unclear. His has not been a loud voice on drug policy, but he has been police chief in a city, Seattle, that has embraced lowest-priority policing for adult marijuana offenses and needle exchange programs, and he has gone with the flow in regards to those issues. For a keen local look at Kerlikowske, Seattle activist turned journalist Dominic Holden's musings on Kerlikowske are well worth checking out.

Prior to being named Seattle police chief in 2000, Kerlikowske served as deputy director in the Justice Department, where he oversaw the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant program. He also spent four years as Buffalo's police commissioner. The military veteran has a total of 36 years in law enforcement, where he has earned a reputation as a progressive.

While Kerlikowske has a national profile in law enforcement circles, it is not because of drug policy. His interests have been around gun policy, immigration, and electronic data mining of private records, which he has criticized as highly intrusive and not very useful.

Drug reformers had advocated for someone with a public health -- not a law enforcement -- background to head ONDCP. But a progressive law enforcement official who has a record of tolerating drug reform and harm reduction efforts may make for a decent drug czar from the reform perspective.

"While we're disappointed that President Obama seems poised to nominate a police chief instead of a major public health advocate as drug czar, we're cautiously optimistic that Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske will support Obama's drug policy reform agenda," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "What gives us hope is the fact that Seattle has been at the cutting edge of harm reduction and other drug policy reform developments in the United States over the last decade," he said.

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