United States: Ex-Seattle Police Chief Heads to D.C. to Fight War on Drugs
by Kimberly A.C. Wilson, The Oregonian
SEATTLE -- During nearly a decade as Seattle's top law enforcement officer Gil Kerlikowske was confronted with concerns about corner drug dealing almost daily.
"I would meet with community folks and they would say 'about two blocks from here,' or 'over in Belltown near where I live,' or 'down the street from my house, there's people selling drugs on the corner at all hours.' "
Kerlikowske's response as chief was playbook police work -- deploying officers to the scene, arresting players along the illegal drug trade food-chain and seizing territorial, if temporary, victory on the drug corners.
But a week into his new assignment as President Barack Obama's drug czar, Kerlikowske is using the platform to recast the "War on Drugs" as a matter of national public health and not simply the domain of the criminal justice system.
"I'd be happy if I can change the conversation about drugs. We recycle people through the criminal justice system but it's more than that," Kerlikowske said Thursday during a visit to Seattle before wrapping up his move to Washington, D.C., to direct the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
He sat in a small meeting room at the Four Seasons Hotel that overlooked ferry traffic in Puget Sound on a cloud-free afternoon. Two weeks earlier, the interview might have taken place under those blue skies, checking out a nearby drug corner or dropping by one of the city's needle-exchange sites.
But new constraints -- including advance teams and a cadre of U.S. Marshals -- come along with his new leadership role within the Executive Office of the President. So instead a deluxe setting served as the backdrop for a one-on-one conversation with The Oregonian on the linguistics of the war, the ravages of addiction and the social cost of drug incarceration.
The office may only be 20 years old, but the war it has waged was declared four decades ago, when President Richard Nixon outlined the federal government's illegal drug prohibition campaign.
"Pill Mills" in Florida
No one claims the war has been won. While fewer high school seniors say they've been offered marijuana or amphetamines than they were a generation ago, nearly 2 million people are arrested every year for nonviolent drug offenses.
And abuse of steroids and designer drugs has mushroomed, as have "pill mills" like the ones Kerlikowske visited in South Florida -- storefront, walk-in facilities that dispense millions of addictive prescription pain medications to people who flood in from other states. Think OxyContin for out-of-towners, or Vicodin for visitors.
To combat the problem, Kerlikowske said he will push all states to adopt the sort of prescription-monitoring databases already in place in 30 states, including Oregon and Washington, where police, pharmacists and physicians can track prescriptions for addictive drugs.
Without a national system to monitor abuse, "the cost to society," he said, "is huge."
A statistic that haunts the new "drug czar" may come as a surprise: more people in the United States die from pharmaceutical and illegal drugs than from gunshot wounds.
"In the past few weeks, we've had three deaths from swine flu or the H1N1 virus, and, in the same period, we've had thousands of people overdose and die," he said. "This a public health issue."
First with police background
Kerlikowske, the sixth drug czar since the position was established in 1989, is only the second to come from a background in law enforcement. That perspective -- rooted in jobs as police chief in Buffalo and coastal Florida cities -- was honed over nine years in Seattle.
But missed opportunities in Seattle also may shape Kerlikowske's focus as federal drug policy chief. Take needle-exchange programs, for example.
Although the Obama administration's 2010 budget does not lift the ban on federally-funded needle exchanges, as a candidate, Obama strongly favored such efforts, and Kerlikowske said he supports law enforcement officials working alongside treatment providers to solve drug issues.
"I think needle exchanges can be part of a larger health care issue. Police chiefs know judges and prosecutors, but I don't think they're shoulder-to-shoulder with the treatment community," he said. Kerlikowske said he admits he didn't foster such relationships with service providers in Seattle, including the city's needle exchange near Pike Place Market.
"We have a chance now to forge relationships with our treatment colleagues," he said. "You can increase the impact because you're collaborating."
Will soon talk policies
Kerlikowske expects to meet soon with Attorney General Eric Holder to talk drug policies. Matters of special interest to the Pacific Northwest are high on the agenda, he said, including medical marijuana and the scourge of methamphetamines.
He is keeping in mind the words of fellow West Coast police chiefs, who were raising red flags about meth long before federal officials began to listen.
"It wasn't being heard," he said. "We're gonna be a lot faster to look at things on a regional basis. Meth is one thing. Medical marijuana is another."
In Seattle, Kerlikowske followed but didn't embrace city direction to ignore medical marijuana crimes.
Still, if pot legalization supporters haven't exactly found a vocal ally in Kerlikowske, advocates for medical marijuana -- on the books in 13 states -- may be pleased with his track record.
"Whether it's the Drug Enforcement Agency or the Seattle Police Department, you use your resources to go after the most violent offenders," Kerlikowske said.
"Medical marijuana doesn't pose that threat."
-- Kimberly A.C. Wilson; kimberlywilson at news.oregonian.com
Photo: Dan Delong/Red Box Pictures Gil Kerlikowske, former Seattle police chief and now President Barack Obama's drug czar, said one of the things he wants to do in his new job is "change the conversation about drugs."