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Not quite so much the warrior, maybe

Gil Kerlikowske

Gil Kerlikowske

For coming on to 40 years, we’ve had a “war on drugs,” which has become quite a war indeed. The February 2 Washington Post Magazine featured a must-read, detailed report about the raid on the home of a small-town mayor in Maryland: “Acting on a mistaken drug trafficking suspicion, a SWAT team broke down their door, shot beloved pets and shattered a happy home. Was it an extreme reaction, or business as usual in America’s war on drugs?” (The pretext for the raid was a box containing drugs, which police themselves had planted at the mayor’s front door.) In a followup online chat, one of the writers remarked, “Obviously, one of the most frightening aspects of this sad tale is that it could happen to any one of us.”

This paramilitary activity in our country has been a federally-driven, primarily, development, pushed by presidents of both parties for four decades; the results have included no diminishment of drug activity but unabated violence which is becoming increasingly hazardous. Might the Obama Administration try a different direction?

In nominating Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as “drug czar,” Obama may be signaling that change is in the wind. Not radical, 180-degree turnarounds – which might have been what appointment of his predecessor, Norm Stamper, would have indicated – but significant adjustment at least.

The key touchstone here is Seattle Initiative 75, a 2003 measure which specifically called for making marijuana not legal exactly, but the lowest priority for law enforcement. The measure passed. It didn’t pass with Kerlikowske’s endorsement, but that has to be parsed: The Seattle Times reported local law enforcement considered it “vague, potentially confusing and unlikely to change what they do on the street” – in other words, not wrong as policy, but simply unnecessary. The followup sentence: “Arresting people for possessing marijuana for personal use, says Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, is not a priority now.” Since the measure’s passage, the chief appears to have abided by its terms, without complaint.

Two strains seem to have developed in law enforcement in recent decades, that of the paramilitary operation in which police are soldiers in a war on crime; or, neighborhood policing, which takes a less violent, much broader and (in our opinion) a far more sophisticated look at how to bring safety to communities. Kerlikowske (like Stamper before him, some differences between the two notwithstanding) appears to have planted himself firmly in the second group.

His take on the lessons of 9/11 is indicative: “that local first responders are the lifeblood of public safety; and that real security comes not from just inventing new response mechanisms to deal with potential threats, but more importantly from strengthening and supporting those already in place. What occurred though was the creation of a bloated and largely unwieldy bureaucracy (the Department of Homeland Security or DHS), awash in money but lacking a coherent and integrative plan to prioritize and address security threats.”

And there’s the quick-out statement from NORML, the marijuana law reform group: “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 John Walters — appears to possess both of these common sense qualities.”

Soon – assuming no vetting problems – we’ll see what he does with it.

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