President Obama made a courageous, farsighted choice for the nation’s drug czar.

In his appointment of Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, Obama has nominated the most progressive person to hold that position in the nation’s history. Kerlikowske is in a position to change the nation’s “lock ’em up” attitude and refocus the issue of illegal drugs where it belongs: public health.

At first glance, the selection of a police officer as drug czar might suggest the old government response: arrest, prosecute and punish as many “offenders” as possible. But Kerlikowske comes from a state that has been at the forefront of drug policy reform.

Seattle, where Kerlikowske headed the police force from 2000 until his appointment, has taken a more practical approach. Its citizens voted, in 2003, to make marijuana prosecution the lowest law enforcement priority. The city has been a champion of using the public health system rather than criminal justice to address problems caused by illegal drugs. It has promoted anti-addiction treatments, which reduce the demand for drugs, thus getting dealers off the street. And to reduce HIV transmission among IV drug users, the city of Seattle has listed on its Web site the locations where addicts can get clean needles.

Not only is this approach more sensible and humane. It is also more cost-effective.

A Rand Corporation study found that law enforcement costs fifteen times more than treatment for drug users to achieve the same benefit.

Kerlikowske’s appointment comes at a time when states are under tremendous fiscal pressure to cut back. Their corrections budgets are burdensome. This reality may make the necessary job of reform easier.

The war on drugs spurred a massive increase in the size and budgets of American criminal justice agencies. During the Clinton administration, police departments actually got more federal funds based on the number of drug arrests they made.

Currently, the War on Drugs costs the federal government approximately $20 billion a year. In 2004, there were more than 40,000 Americans locked up for nonviolent marijuana offenses. Incarcerating these people costs us more than $1 billion a year. And while most of the 800,000 people who are arrested every year for marijuana offenses don’t end up doing time, taxpayers still have to pay the substantial police and court costs — money most governments can no longer afford.

Previous drug czars promoted this irrational and expensive approach, maintaining a bizarre, “Reefer-Madness”-like obsession with marijuana. Between 1998 and 2006, the White House drug office spent $1.4 billion on advertising aimed at preventing teenagers from smoking pot.

The result of this approach? Nothing other than classic wasteful government spending. According to Justice Department statistics, almost one in three high school seniors smoked marijuana in the past twelve months. A study commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy said the advertising actually makes teens more aware of how many of their peers use marijuana.

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama had the wisdom to say, “The war on drugs has been a failure” and to describe the policy of locking up nonviolent drug users as “blind and counterproductive.”

His nomination of Kerlikowske shows that he meant what he said.

Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, is a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School and author of the forthcoming book “Let’s Get Free: A Hip Hop Theory of Justice” (The New Press). He can be reached at

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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