Seattle Police Chief Named New Drug Czar

The Obama administration named Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as the country's new drug czar. In Seattle, Kerlikowske was an advocate of community policing, as well as prevention and treatment as part of the answer to drug problems.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The Obama administration has announced its pick for director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, commonly referred to as the drug czar. It's Gil Kerlikowske, the chief of police in Seattle.

As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, he's an interesting choice for the job.

MARTIN KASTE: Kerlikowske is the police chief in a city that hosts an annual event called Hempfest. And where possession of marijuana is the police's lowest priority. And at his nomination announcement today, Kerlikowske certainly didn't sound like a traditional drug czar.

Mr. GIL KERLIKOWSKE (Police Chief, Seattle): Our nation's drug problem is one of human suffering, and as a police officer, but also, in my own family, I have experienced the effects that drugs can have on our youth, our families and our communities.

KASTE: Kerlikowske is referring to his adult son who has a criminal record involving marijuana. That situation reportedly delayed the nomination, but Bill Piper, with the anti-drug war group called the Drug Policy Alliance, says that family history will actually help.

Mr. BILL PIPER (Drug Policy Alliance): He's going to understand that both drug abuse and run-ins with the law can happen to any family, including his own. And will probably make him more sympathetic to treatment instead of incarceration.

KASTE: Still, this doesn't mean you should expect to hear the Grateful Dead wafting out of the drug czar's office anytime soon.

Mr. TIM BURGESS (Public Safety Committee Chair, Seattle City Council): He also, we must remember, is a police officer.

KASTE: Tim Burgess is a former cop who's now on the Seattle City Council. He chairs the committee overseeing public safety.

Mr. BURGESS: In some aspects, Gil is quite traditional. He can blend this street wise orientation that he will bring to the job with his more academic evidence-based approach to policing - and it's a perfect blend.

KASTE: For example, Kerlikowske actually opposed the voter initiative that de-prioritize marijuana enforcement in Seattle because he said he didn't want people to be confused about the legality of drugs. Hard drugs such as heroin and meth are still a high enforcement priority and even pot can still get you arrested. Quite a few people have found that out the hard way.

Still, Kerlikowske's nomination pleases those who want a softer approach to drug enforcement. This, along with the administration's recent decision to stop raiding medical marijuana operations, have made Bill Piper think the country has now reached a political tipping point.

Mr. PIPER: Because we've gone, you know, from President Clinton saying, I smoked marijuana, but I didn't inhale, to President Obama, 16 years later, who says, you know, I smoked marijuana and I inhaled, that was the point. I think that's a huge political and cultural shift.

KASTE: As further evidence of that shift, the Obama White House is demoting the drug czar job. It'll no longer be a cabinet level position. And during Vice President Biden's introduction of Kerlikowske today, neither man uttered the phrase, war on drugs.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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