Editorial: Head of drug council should bring change

President Obama is reported to have settled on Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy, taking the position commonly referred to as “drug czar.”

It would have been preferable to abolish the position and transfer the 100 or so employees the “czar” supervises to other departments or to the private sector and apply the $421 million the office costs to paying off a tiny sliver of the national debt.

But there is at least some reason to hope Chief Kerlikowske will not be as awful as most of the recent holders of that position.

The wording of the title could well imply the director of the office would be charged with doing impartial and intellectually respectable studies of various methods of trying to control the problems drugs pose to individuals and society at large.

Instead, of course, the office has typically been held by ardent prohibitionists who have misused it to campaign against state medical marijuana initiatives. And to rail against suggestions of even slight deviations from strict prohibitionism in ways that fly in the face of scientific evidence and common sense.

It is both troubling and reassuring that Kerlikowske has almost no public record on the various controversies surrounding drug policies.

It is troubling because it suggests he has little background to equip him with solid knowledge. It may be mildly reassuring in that he has been police chief in Seattle since 2000, during which time that city has been in the forefront of the search for alternatives to strict prohibitionism.

Washington state has a medical marijuana law put in place by the voters. Seattle has a needle exchange program for addicts who use injectable drugs and has more extensive treatment programs available as alternatives to incarceration than most cities.

In 2003, again by ballot initiative, the people of Seattle approved a policy of making marijuana-law enforcement the police department’s very lowest priority. The city has an annual Hempfest at which speakers call for decriminalization, audience members openly smoke marijuana — and the police stand by to make sure no violence occurs but otherwise leave people alone.

Norm Stamper was Seattle’s police chief before Kerlikowske and became an unapologetic critic of the drug war as an active member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He notes the current chief was not active on either side of the 2003 initiative on marijuana enforcement or any other drug-law-related issue, but that at his instruction his department has complied with the directive.

Stamper believes — hopes? — Kerlikowske is “more inclined to support research-driven and evidence-based conclusions about public policy.”

We certainly hope that is true. If it is, we should expect to see marijuana taken off Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act. That would allow doctors nationwide to prescribe it when appropriate, and a renewed emphasis on treatment and accurate information would result rather than “reefer madness” style propaganda.

Perhaps it is too much to hope for a top-level appointee to recommend ending the “war on drugs,” but an evidence-based assessment would surely conclude it has done far more harm than good.