Drug Policy Changes Under New Director

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The Department of Justice will no longer prosecute medical marijuana users who comply with state laws. Some reform advocates hope the move means decriminalization of pot may be in the works. Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske talks about the direction of U.S. drug policy.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.

Last month, medical marijuana advocates cheered when Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice will de-prioritize cases against medical marijuana users and dispensaries, as long as they comply with state laws. But Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, says not so fast.

Kerlikowske used to be police chief in Seattle, a city known for progressive drug policies like needle exchanges and drug courts, but now he's drug czar. And while Kerlikowske says it's time to ditch the phrase the war on drugs, that doesn't mean that legalization of any drugs is on the U.S. drug policy agenda. So what is on the agenda? Gil Kerlikowske joins us today to discuss drugs and drug policy under the administration.

Later in the hour, choreographer Debbie Allen reviews the new Michael Jackson movie, "This Is It," but first if you're a doctor, drug counselor, law enforcement officer, if you've been on the front lines of the war on drugs, what's the issue you would prioritize in a new drug policy? Tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

With me now in the studio is Gil Kerlikowske. He has spent almost four decades of experience in law enforcement, and he's also served as deputy director for the U.S. Department of Justice under the Clinton administration. Thank you for being on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. GIL KERLIKOWSKE (Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy): Good, thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: I want to start with the new DOJ policy on medical marijuana because it's been in the news, and it's somewhat similar to Seattle's when you were there - the 2003 voter initiative that made marijuana possession a low priority for law enforcement. Were you involved in the drafting of the current DOJ policy, and what does it mean for your office?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: No, I wasn't involved in the drafting. I certainly had an opportunity to look at it and to provide advice. But this is a very narrow piece that comes from the attorney general to the United States attorneys in those 13 states where medical marijuana exists. So it's his policy guidance to them.

ROBERTS: And are you - what does it mean for you in terms of those 13 states, in terms of the possibility of it growing to other states?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, we know that there are several other states that are also considering medical marijuana, and I can't go anywhere - and I've been on the road since I've taken this job every week for the last six months - but I can't go anywhere without being questioned about medical marijuana and what does it mean. And so it was important that we were able to look at this policy, but it's important that it also be considered in the much larger context.

ROBERTS: And as you get more data from those states that have a medical marijuana policy, will that inform a federal policy?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: What happens right now is that it's very clear - a couple things: First of all, that the raw marijuana plant is not medicine, that using smoked marijuana as a way to administer some type of drug isn't something that is approved through medicine. There may be parts or are parts of the marijuana plant that certainly are being considered through a variety of medical studies, but we'd like medicine, we'd like medical science to answer those questions.

ROBERTS: You wrote last week that legalized, regulated drugs are not a panacea. That the argument that regulating illicit drugs, as in some European countries, can cut down on costs and crime. Do you think regulation ever has a value?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, right now we know that we have regulated opioids, for instance. They are highly controlled. They're highly regulated. They're highly taxed. And yet we know that prescription drugs are one of the most - the highest levels of people dying in the United States. We know that they're highly addictive. We know that we can't keep them out of the hands of young people. And these are already regulated, taxed and controlled.

ROBERTS: So you see that more as a model than, say, alcohol and tobacco?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, I look at alcohol and tobacco, and we tax both of those. I don't think there's any question that the amount of money that the United States or any government gets from taxing those substances begins to pay for either the health costs or the social costs.

ROBERTS: You've also said that you don't like the phrase: war on drugs. The president has also said he doesn't like it. What's wrong with it? And what should replace it?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, I don't know if we should just turn around and look for another bumper sticker to replace it, but what I do know is that the war on drugs is not a very good metaphor for what we're dealing with. First, we're not at war with people in the United States. Second, when you talk about a war, you really limit the tools that you have. We almost always look at war as the use of force in some way or another. This is not just a public safety problem or a criminal justice problem -the drug problem. It is clearly a social policy and public-health problem.

ROBERTS: So if it's - changing the phrase not necessarily to another bumper sticker, as you say, but if it's getting rid of that phrase, is there a commensurate policy change behind it, or is it just a question of semantics?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: No, there is a commensurate policy change, and the policy change would be this, is that we've looked at war on drugs for 40-plus years. We've looked at the criminal justice system as the primary component for dealing with it, whether it's through arrests or drug courts, seizures, et cetera. We need to look at this in a much more balanced way, and we need to bring a lot of other people to the forefront when we talk about this.

There are prevention programs that work. I mean, right now, people say gee, war on drugs is a total, complete, absolute failure, and therefore, we must move to legalization. Well, I actually reject that. There are things in prevention that clearly work, and there are treatment programs that clearly work, both of which are less cost than incarceration.

ROBERTS: So if it's something between the current war on drugs and total legalization, it's a balance between public safety and treatment and prevention, how do you find that balance? Where do you look to models, and how to measure success?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, I think there are a couple ways to measure success. One is that right now, we know that, for instance, drugged driving, which was just recently studied by the Department of Transportation, is a huge and significant issue. And the United States has made great improvement over the last four decades in alcohol-impaired driving. It is down significantly. And yet in 2007, they tested for drugs, and the drugged-driving issue is very high.

Well, let's use the model of enforcement and education, which we have for alcohol-impaired driving or alcohol-impaired arrests, and use that same type of model. Those combinations of education and enforcement, messages that get out to young people about the dangers of drugs, messages that get out to parents about how to keep prescription drugs out of the hands of children, these things make a lot of sense.

ROBERTS: As someone who comes from a law-enforcement background rather than necessarily a public-health background, how do you think that informs where you find that balance?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, I think the best part about the Office of National Drug Control Policy is that we have a deputy director who is a 35-year University of Pennsylvania treatment professional. He is a researcher. So you have this incredible combination of a treatment professional that understands the value and importance of the criminal justice system to this whole aspect. And you have a police chief who understands the value and importance of prevention and treatment. And together, we think we will bring a lot of minds and a lot of thinking into the same place on this issue.

ROBERTS: In terms of prevention, that message has also evolved from the sort of just-say-no to something a little bit more sophisticated. Where do you see effective prevention measures happening and what are the best public education methods you've seen?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, there are effective measures. For instance, The Partnership for a Drug-Free America does a very good job, and these messages are clearly tested. In the Office of National Drug Control Policy, we also fund the media campaign. And these are messages that are very, very carefully measured and tested in focus groups and other ways to make sure that they're sending the right messages to parents and the right messages to kids in a very realistic way about the dangers of drugs.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Mary(ph) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Mary, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MARY (Caller): Good afternoon. I wanted to just pass on, as someone who is a social worker, who's in the field, I work with both the homeless population, as well as people in both active addiction and in recovery and have seen what hard drugs have done and the damage that they have done to the lives of any number of my clients. Having said that, and having seen that, I think we really must look at the way we're handling marijuana in this country. A lot of the clients that I have dealt with, the repercussions from them have not been from the use of the drug. It has been from the illegality of the drug. It exposes them to criminal elements they wouldn't otherwise have been around. It exposes them to harder drugs they wouldn't ordinarily have been around. And I think if we continue to handle it the way we handle it, we're just - we're not going to make any progress on any of it unless we really sit back and, as a country, go, okay, what's the primary concern here?

ROBERTS: Dr�

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, good. I think right there in North Carolina is probably one of the most interesting examples of something called the High Point Program. And it's being replicated in Seattle, it's being replicated in Providence, Rhode Island. And it is about pre-arrest diversion programs. That sounds a little complicated, but essentially what it means is that we know young people get into trouble with drugs. We know that some of them are dealing drugs. And we know that if we make the arrest that quite often there is a stigma attached to that that is pretty difficult for them to get out from under. And so this pre-arrest diversion program has great promise because it gives young people the chance to get out from under what they've done without an arrest record, but it also gives them an opportunity if they need treatment programs, if they need literacy, if they need vocational training. And it all has the sanction of the criminal justice system behind it, which actually quite often is a motivator to keep out of trouble.

ROBERTS: And is there political and public support behind it?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Yes, there is. Right now, the key will be, of course, the evaluation that is being done on these programs to make sure they're effective. But you know, what's interesting, after 37 years in law enforcement, when I talk to and listen to my colleagues around the country, they are all very hungry, very thirsty for a different conversation on drugs. They don't want this to be just a police problem or just a criminal justice problem. They want other people helping.

ROBERTS: My guest is Gil Kerlikowske. He's the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which is a very cumbersome title, which is why people tend to shorten it to drug czar. How do you feel about that nickname?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: You know, I don't - I was studying the Romanovs. I'm not so sure that I like having the czar name attached.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: But you're right, it is shorthand.

ROBERTS: Well, for lack of a better option - coming up, more with White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske and how he'll prioritize the different facets of drug policy. We are also taking your calls at 800-989-8255. And you can send us email. The address is talk@npr.org. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. We're talking with Gil Kerlikowske. He's the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, otherwise known for simplicity's sake as the White House drug czar. Director Kerlikowske is a former police chief, and we want to hear from those of you who have also been in enforcement or treatment or prevention. When it comes to drug policy, what's the issue that you would prioritize? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Gil Kerlikowske, we were just discussing a pre-arrest intervention program. What are some other law enforcement measures, like alternative sentencing, drug courts? Where do they fit into this?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, I think drug courts are an excellent example. There are over 2,300 of them. They exist in all the states. They have been around for 20 years. They have been widely evaluated. And they are the most committed and dedicated groups of jurists, law enforcement professionals, people in the treatment community, and - myself, and I know my colleagues across the country, have attended literally thousands of drug court graduations. And you cannot help but be moved by those people who have gotten their lives and their families back together.

ROBERTS: Give us a sense of how they work, just a brief rundown of what a drug court is.

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Essentially when a person is arrested and goes through the criminal justice process, they could get sentenced to a certain amount of time or probation, or they can opt for, if it's available, a drug court. And a drug court means that you're going to be coming back every week, that that judge is going to take a personal interest in you, and the people in that court will, also. At the same time, you've got the sanction of the court and the fact that there is random drug testing that's also a part of it. All of those things put together usually end up resulting in a fairly high level of people who are actually able to get it together again and be back in their neighborhoods and working and paying taxes.

ROBERTS: And how common are they?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: There - as I said, there are over 2,300 of these, and they've been around for a long time, and I think there is a great deal of support. President Obama has increased the administration support for the next budget to an additional $29 million for them.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Ernie(ph) in Tucson, Arizona. Ernie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ERNIE (Caller): Hi. I'm an internal medicine physician, as well as a registered pharmacist in Arizona. I also perform Homeland Security exams for patients that are immigrating to the United States. We're situated about 86 miles from the border, and I see the intersection of those three different fields. And I think personally that they should legalize drugs, all drugs, so that they can control them, tax them, provide prevention and treatment programs just like they do for alcohol, decrease the amount of home invasions across the border, as well as decrease the number of narco-trafficant death along the border, decrease the incentive for people bringing drugs across.

I mean, I have a piece of property 26 miles north of the border. People were walking across the border all the time. You have buses full of illegal immigrants on the way to the small town 26 miles north of the border. And from my perspective, what you see on the news are these huge drug busts of kilos of marijuana and cocaine, yet when I report to the local police that there's somebody forging my name on narcotics at the local pharmacy, they send me over to the detectives, I leave a recording, I never get a call back.

I've reported this to DEA, and I get the same treatment. So I think that it's all huffing and puffing and that there is no serious program to try to decrease the amount of narcotics that come into this country. And I think it's more for political reasons, that they can get a foothold in these countries to set up more army bases, et cetera.

ROBERTS: All right, Ernie, let's give our guest a chance to answer. Thanks very much.

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, on the legalization issue, it's not something that's discussed either by myself or in the White House. No country - no country in the world has legalized drugs. And if you think about the legalized drugs we do have, talking about the prescriptions earlier, we know that there are lots of problems. We're not able to control them. We're not able to keep them out of the hands of young people. We're not actually able to keep them from causing deaths among a lot of people. So I don't think legalization is anything that's going to be entertained or discussed at any level.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Jacob in Detroit, Michigan. Jacob, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JACOB (Caller): Hello?

ROBERTS: Hello, you're on the air.

JACOB: I'm basically - well, I'm sorry to use the term drug czar, but it is a simplification. I'm basically wondering what your opinion, sir, would be regarding a generalized sort of penal reform in regards to narcotics. Because for me, as someone who follows politics, I really feel as though it's a kind of a political kryptonite. It's not discussed as much as I would like it to be. And I'd like to hear your thoughts, and I'll gladly take my answer off the air.

ROBERTS: Thanks, Jacob.

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Good. I think Jacob brings up an excellent point. Most of the arrests, most of the laws involving drugs, are not the federal laws. They're the laws done by the states. And a number of states have taken different steps to handle drug cases differently, whether it's through drug courts, whether it's through intervention, whether it's through deferred prosecution. And those states have evaluated some of these. They've looked at some of these programs to see a way of not just using the heavy hand of criminal justice in all cases. What you really want to do is to make sure that you get people back on the right track. And that's why the availability of treatment and prevention programs that actually work are probably as significant and important as anything we can discuss today.

ROBERTS: Are there states, either because of their own political climate or their own geographic location, that have issues where you see them ahead of the federal policy, where they are experimenting in a way that's worth watching?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, I think the federal policy, when you talk about the sentences, if you look at the Drug Enforcement Administration, the use of the United States Department of Justice, those are finite resources directed toward significant trafficking individuals. But what you see at the state and local level are people arrested for possession, people arrested for drugged driving but also for, of course, sale and distribution. And the states have developed a variety of mechanisms to try and deal with that. And as we know right now, whatever state we're talking about, they're looking at how do they reduce their prison population.

Well, if you go into jail, and you have - or you go into prison, and you have a drug problem and we don't spend time and money to treat that problem, it should not come as a surprise that when that person is released, they'll be right back into trouble and probably right back into the system. So we need to be smart about these things and not continue to use just the tool of force or criminal justice.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Kathleen(ph) in Denver, Colorado. Kathleen, welcome to the program.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Thank you. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to say that, of course, in Colorado now we have legalized medical marijuana. It's helping a lot of people. And it's helping a lot of people who are selling it get jobs in this economy. But beyond that, in my personal experience, having grown up in Boulder, Colorado, in the '70s, I have never known anyone who started smoking marijuana and then went on to harder drugs because they had started smoking marijuana. And I know that law enforcement has told us that for years, but I haven't ever seen it.

So I really think that when we're talking about drug laws, we need to separate marijuana from other hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, et cetera, because I don't see that they have much of a relationship. And the students at the University of Colorado now are drinking themselves to death, and yet alcohol is legal.

ROBERTS: Kathleen, thank you for your call.

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, and I think she brings up, I mean, several excellent points. And that's why when states look at how to deal with marijuana and what types of treatment systems, prevention programs are available as a result of the criminal justice system, what can be most cost-effective - that makes a lot of sense. There's lots of debate around whether marijuana is a gateway drug. And rather than get into that, I would also tell you that I have not met a heroin addict who didn't start smoking marijuana. It doesn't mean that everyone who smokes marijuana - and that is something I think law enforcement used to say. I frankly don't hear that too much from them anymore.

So being wise about how we're dealing with this and protecting the public - the one thing I would mention, though, and just looking at my own state of Washington, the number one call to hotlines for people who wanted help with a drug problem was about marijuana.

ROBERTS: We have an email from Rachel, who says: What are this administrations' thoughts on the crack cocaine sentencing laws that criminalize crack users - who are more likely to be minorities and poor - at an extremely unfair rate? I remember reading on barackobama.com before the election that the president believes this law is unfair. What is being done to fix the problem?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breur, who was in charge of the criminal division, testified on this issue several months ago. And I believe there is a pending legislation to remove the disparity between the sentences for powder cocaine, federal sentences, and the federal sentences for crack cocaine. So I think the administration has already made a clear statement on this.

ROBERTS: We also have an email from Brian in Iowa City, who says: You spoke earlier this week on Iowa Public Radio. You said that prescription drugs were the biggest drug problem in this country. The companies that make these drugs make lots of money and are allowed to advertise their products on TV. If I'm not mistaken, our country is the only country that - in the world - that allows drug companies to advertise their products on TV. Would you consider changing that?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, one, I don't actually, even as a czar, have the authority to do that. But I would tell you that the United States and New Zealand are the only two countries that do advertise drugs. And there is a lot of concern about advertisement that essentially says here is a pill or here is an answer to every possible medical problem, and it's advertised on TV. And I think it certainly bears further review and further inspection.

ROBERTS: Is there much communication or coordination among your contemporaries in other national governments? Is there such a thing as a drug czar in other countries, and do you talk to each other?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: There are a couple of things that help. One is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and there are meetings that are held regularly. President Obama, before he went to Russia, the bilateral agreement that talks about a - the drug czar of Russia, where they have a real drug czar, and myself�

ROBERTS: Though not real czar?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: And I'm only a pseudo czar, I think. But they - and they - we are going to a chair a bilateral discussion on the drug problem. You know, the other interesting part that I've found in my travels to Colombia, to Mexico and speaking with the Russian drug czar is that countries that were thought of predominantly as a state that either transited or manufactured drugs are now states that are having significant addiction problems. And as Secretary Clinton talked about reducing our own demand and figuring out how to deal with this more comprehensively right now makes a lot of sense from a global perspective.

ROBERTS: Well, to Mexico and Colombia, you certainly need to add Afghanistan in terms of international sources of illegal drugs in this country. Can you give us some sense of where international policy is headed?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, right now, Afghanistan - the poppy and the opium that ends up being produced out of Afghanistan - very little, if any, actually ever comes to the United States. The vast majority of that is trafficked to Russia, to the UK and to Europe. But we know that heroine, cocaine, marijuana, other drugs that flow through or originate out of South America do come to the United States.

We also know that in the United States, we produce quite a bit. Homemade methamphetamine, for instance - from the smurfing, it's called, of pseudoephedrine or the buying of over-the-counter pseudoephedrine products in making methamphetamine, a variety of ways that these drugs come to this country.

ROBERTS: Let's here from Kris(ph) in Lincolnton, Georgia. Kris, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

KRIS (Caller): Thank you. I was wondering - I'm 62 years old, and when I was in high school, I didn't even know what marijuana was. And I'm wondering why is it so rampant now, and it never used to be?

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, I wish I had a good answer for that, Rachel. I am - I actually just about two years younger than you are, and so I'm afraid I would put myself in exactly the same mindset. But I think that marijuana is popularized on television shows. It is popularized in media. There is only one antidrug media message out there, and that's the one that the Office of the National Drug Control Policy actually funds, and that - the antidrug.com. There's an awful lot of information about drugs, and it's put forward in a very matter-of-fact and straightforward way that's very helpful to people. So I would tell you that there's more information available there.

ROBERTS: This is Jacob in Saginaw, Michigan. Jacob, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JACOB (Caller): How are you doing?

ROBERTS: Good.

JACOB: I'm a recovering addict. I've been 12 years clean now from�

ROBERTS: Congratulations.

JACOB: �cocaine, crystal meth, mushrooms, acid, all kinds of just college party drugs. And I started with marijuana, sneaking joints from my father when I was eight. But the question I have is, when I was growing up, everywhere you saw you had the ads, this is your brain on drugs and you had DARE and you had - in the schools, you had the drug messages everywhere. Now I have two young children, eight and 10. And I don't care about those things being told to the children. I mean, yes, we have the Web sites, but it's not - if it's such large concern for our children, why don't we have more of the messages being put out there to them like we did back in the late �80s and the early �90s? And I'll take my answer off air. Thank you.

ROBERTS: Thanks, Jacob.

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, one, I think there was some concern that some of the messages - although it sounded very smart to us as adults, they actually didn't resonate or take very well with young people. So we have to be so careful, and the messages have to be so very carefully tested that they don't, in fact, send a different meaning to what the intent is.

The other part is whether it's the DARE program or other prevention programs that are school-based, it can't be just in the fifth grade and the eight grade. It can't be just school-based when you think a kid's only spending, you know, less than half a year in school. There has to be a neighborhood, and community based. It has to be parents talking to their children. And that's why the Web sites are also designed for the adults, so that they can actually feel comfortable and knowledgeable about talking to their kids.

Without question, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, those ads in helping educate parents about how to talk to their kids about drugs, I think that is, by far, one of the most powerful prevention programs. But it has to be a lot more than just a quick message on TV.

ROBERTS: So you've been in office for five months now. Why do you think the president picked you?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: I think there are a couple of things. One is that after 37 years in law enforcement and knowing something about the law enforcement business, I think that the ability to carry a message about a balanced approach as a law enforcement professional is very helpful. I was able to work with then-Senator Biden and now-Vice President Biden, who is very knowledgeable about law enforcement issues. And to be called upon and asked to take on what most people consider as a very significant challenge is - came - and it's a great opportunity to do that on behalf of this administration.

ROBERTS: Gil Kerlikowske is director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He joined me today in Studio 3A. Thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Coming up, Michael Jackson's longtime friend-choreographer Debbie Allen reviews the new movie about him, "This Is It." She's next.

I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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