Drug Czar Kerlikowske Leads Shift In Drug Policy

The Obama administration hopes to more than double the funding for drug courts in next year's budget. Leading the shift in drug policy is new U.S. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske. He's only been on the job for a month. One of his first visits was to the Orange County Drug Court in southern California.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host

And emphasis is on treatment is one way the Obama administration is changing America's drug policy. It also hopes to more than double funding for drug courts. Leading the shift in policy, is the new U.S. drug Czar, Gil Kerlikowske.

NPR's Ina Jaffe was there when he visited a drug court in Orange County, California.

INA JAFFE: You would probably never see a guest speaker address defendants in a regular courtroom, but the rules are a lot looser in Judge Wendy Lindley's drug court.

Judge WENDY LINDLEY (California Superior Court judge): The drug czar of the entire United States is here today in our court.

JAFFE: Gil Kerlikowske has only been on the job a month. So he wasn't there to hand out information. He was there to get some from the recovering addicts packing the room.

Mr. GIL KERLIKOWSKE (Drug czar, United States): I would really enjoy hearing from you what I should be doing, because you're paying my salary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAFFE: Drug courts combine rigorous treatment with regular appearances before a judge. Screw up too badly, you go back to jail - but that's relatively rare here.

Ms. LONELY(ph): And I'm going to ask that Ruben come on up.

JAFFE: This particular court session is devoted to combat veterans. All of them have substance abuse problems. Many also have PTSD or brain injuries. The details are kept confidential in open court, so are last names. The way these clients battle their demons and struggle for sobriety is evident to everyone in the room.

RUBEN: You know, growing up or being in the Marines, that teaches not to be emotional, not to cry.

JAFFE: But some of the attorneys in the room didn't get that memo - as Ruben speaks, they reach for the Kleenex.

RUBEN: But in this program I learned to deal with pain and it brings a positive change.

JAFFE: Drug courts have been around for a couple of decades. There are more than 2,000 of them in the country, but those only serve about half the people who are eligible, so there needs to be more, says the new drug czar.

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Too often it's easy to paint a drug court as social service work, et cetera. Quite frankly, this is as much crime prevention and public safety as it is reclaiming somebody's life.

JAFFE: Studies show that drug court graduates are much less likely to re-offend than the typical ex-con. That cuts prison costs and prevents crimes, says Kerlikowske.

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: There's going to be a much heavier emphasis on prevention and also treatment.

JAFFE: Drug czar is such a common term, Kerlikowske's given up on getting people to stop using it. Though with his low-key demeanor, it's hard to think of him as the czar of anything. Officially, his title is Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. But there's another common term he does reject - war on drugs.

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: When you talk about war, really the only tools you have to deal in war are force. And people also see it as a war on them, not a war on product.

JAFFE: The Obama administration's drug policy won't be rolled out until next year, but there are already differences with the previous administration. For example, the Justice Department will not go after medical marijuana dispensaries that are in compliance with local and state laws. And efforts to stem the flow of drugs from Mexico will now put new focus on stopping cash and guns going south from the U.S. And, says Kerlikowske:

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Everybody that's in jail or prison gets out except for a very few. And so if we don't treat the problem, we come back to these neighborhoods in worse condition than how they got there.

JAFFE: Prevention and treatment seem to be working well for Judge Linley's cases.

Ms. LONELY: And I'm going to ask that everybody whose name is called, who's done a great job between last time and today, to please stand up and be recognized. We'll hold our applause to the end.

JAFFE: This courtroom sometimes takes on the atmosphere of an Oprah Winfrey Show. Everyone, it seems, gets a round of applause - even if they backslide they get some for encouragement.

Ms. LONELY: Let's give them a hand.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: Unlike on Oprah, though, no one gets a car. But those who complete the program get something even better.

Ms. LONELY: Felony gone. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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