In one of his first interviews as director of National Drug Control Policy, former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske proclaimed an end to the "war on drugs," but predicted the administration would stay focused on drug control if for no other reason than because the issue spills over into areas such as health care and the war in Afghanistan. In announcing the selection of Kerlikowske in March, Vice President Joe Biden, who began pushing for the creation of the position in 1982, said the new czar would also have a hand in determining how the U.S. should deal with Mexico, which has been plagued with escalating drug violence. Kerlikowske spoke recently with National Journal's Winter Casey about Mexico, medical marijuana and his new approach to drug policy. Edited excerpts follow. Visit the archives page for more Insider Interviews.
NJ: What lessons have you learned during your career that will be most helpful in your new post?
Kerlikowske: After 36 years in local law enforcement, one is that I certainly don't have all the answers. But the other part is the people that know best how to solve the problems or at least reduce them are the people on the streets, the people that are closest to the problem, whether it was officers or detectives or crime analysts. They have the answers. And I just needed to listen.
NJ: How will this apply to your work going forward?
Kerlikowske: I plan to spend a lot of time outside of Washington visiting local areas. I think that some of the best ideas and programs are not necessarily generated from within the Beltway. We can help by providing some support, by highlighting a program, et cetera, but frankly I think it's out in the neighborhoods and communities where some of the best work is done.
I spent several years in a narcotics unit as a detective, and then a few years later I was a narcotics unit commander. So I have a pretty good -- even though it's somewhat dated now -- a pretty good grassroots understanding of drug problems from an enforcement and police department standpoint. The tie-in is so significant to every kind of criminal justice problem. We have got data showing the number of people being arrested -- as high as 80 percent coming into a jail are abusing a drug. It doesn't matter whether they are brought in for domestic violence, burglary or something else, the drug nexus is everything.
NJ: Do you have plans to review potential changes to the country's medical marijuana policies?
Kerlikowske: I have not had my meeting with the attorney general, who had made some statements, but I plan on following up with that pretty closely.
NJ: Will you at least be conducting a study on the topic?
Kerlikowske: I don't know. I think it is a little premature, and frankly, looking at the overdose deaths -- there is such a huge increase in people dying from prescription drug overdoses -- is a little higher on my priorities right now than the medical marijuana issue....
And if you look at the deaths, they have surpassed gunshot wound deaths. It is second only to motor vehicle deaths. I think that is just a powerful statement that we really need to ramp up what we are doing about it.
NJ: How much is the U.S. responsible for the drug cartel fighting in Mexico because of U.S. demand for drugs? How are you going to go about working with Mexico to solve some of these issues?
Kerlikowske: Supporting President [Felipe] Calderon and the initiatives that he has undertaken [is] important to the United States. The other part is -- and I've read the statements from the secretary of State and others -- clearly, when we consume such a high per capita amount of drugs in this country, that fuels drug cartels, it fuels violence, it fuels profit, it fuels corruption. Reducing the demand in the country is absolutely critical if we are not only to improve our own safety and security but also that in other countries.
NJ: I read recently that you said having a "war on drugs" is not the best approach.
Kerlikowske: I think I was more emphatic. I said that we should stop using the war metaphor. We should stop comparing this to a war and be much smarter about how we are dealing with it -- and in a much more comprehensive way. I've ended the war on drugs.
NJ: You were not given a seat in the Cabinet. Do you think you will still get support from the administration even with all the other issues on the table right now?
Kerlikowske: I do. I think that the drug issues, even though they are not front and center when it comes to Iraq or when it comes to the economy -- when you look at Afghanistan and the poppy production, when you look at the economy and people dying of drug overdoses, and abuse of prescription drugs, when you look at health care issues in particular and the president's initiative to reform health care -- if we could reduce the number of people going into hospitals as a result of drug problems, what a significant savings. Not just the effect of making communities and people better -- but what a significant savings out of your tax dollar....
Former drug czars were not members of the Cabinet, others were. The more important question is if your voice is going to be heard when it comes to drug policy by the administration, and I believe it will be -- after only eight days on the job.