Does Obama's Pick Signal 'Change' At The Drug Czar's Office?

President Barack Obama was elected to the office on a platform that promised "change" inside the Beltway. One federal office where 'change' is both needed and is long overdue is the Office of National Drug Control Policy, commonly known as the 'Drug Czar's' office.

America's former Drug Czar John Walters embodied everything that is wrong with today's so called 'war' on drugs -- particularly as it pertains to the medical and personal use of marijuana by responsible adults. In the nearly eight years that he held the post of America's top anti-drug cop, Walters staunchly refused to apply science or logic to U.S. drug policy.

A case in point. Near the end of his tenure Walters infamously alleged that law enforcement no longer targeted marijuana users, and that the likelihood of finding a citizen in jail for a pot-related offense was akin to "finding a unicorn." (In truth, police arrested an estimated 872,000 people in 2007 for pot violations, and according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 12.7 percent of state inmates and 12.4 percent of federal inmates incarcerated for drug abuse violations are serving time for marijuana offenses.)

Walters inability to tell the truth was so troubling that at it begged me to pose the question, in this very forum, "How can we discuss marijuana policy when America’s top drug cop won’t even acknowledge the facts? Over 250 Hill.com readers responded to my post, and virtually all of them reiterated my call for a change in the direction of U.S. drug policy.

There are inklings today that such a change may soon be upon us. According to various news sources, including The Hill, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikoswke has been selected by President Obama to serve as America's next Drug Czar.

On the positive side, Kerlikowske hails from Seattle -- a city that has elected to make the enforcement of marijuana crimes cops’ 'lowest priority.' And although the police chief spoke out against the initiative effort -- which passed with 58 percent of the vote in 2003 -- he’s abided by the will of the people since then. Consequently, there are now fewer marijuana-related arrests in Seattle than in virtually any other major city in the United States.

At first glance, Kerlikowoske also appears to take a tolerant approach toward the medical use of marijuana. Since 1999, Washington state law has allowed for the possession, cultivation, and doctor supervised use of marijuana under state law. (Twelve additional U.S. States have similar laws.) Whereas Kerlikowske's White House predecessor refused to even acknowledge that cannabis possessed even the slightest hint of therapeutic value, Seattle's exiting police chief accepted the law and has made few, if any, efforts to undermine it.

On the potentially negative side, Kerlikowske is first and foremost a cop. He’s served 36 years in law enforcement, and it would be foolish to assume that he will embrace the public's desire to amend America's antiquated and overly punitive pot policies with open arms. That said, NORML is cautiously optimistic that Kerlikowske may bring a progressive approach to an agency that has, almost since its inception, operated in the ‘Dark Ages.’

The day the U.S. government finally -- and properly -- recognizes that drug use is a public health problem and not solely a criminal justice issue will be the day that the President appoints a White House ‘Drug Czar’ who possesses a professional background in public health, addiction, and treatment rather than in law enforcement.

But until that day arrives, perhaps the best we reformers can hope for is a cop who appreciates that pot poses less of a danger to the public than alcohol, and who recognizes that from a practical and fiscal standpoint, targeting and arresting adults who engage in the responsible use of cannabis doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. At first glance, Obama’s pick, unlike his predecessor, appears to possess both of these common sense qualities.

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