Obama picks the right man for drug czar

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 pmproj@progressive.org.