Monday, March 16, 2009

Still ambivalent about the drug czar

I must confess to going back and forth about the prospects for real reform of the unjust and counterproductive drug prohibition laws under President Obama -- and perhaps a little less optimistic even than a couple of weeks ago, when the name of Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske was floated to be "drug czar." On the one hand, he has cooperated with the voter-mandated policy of making marijuana enforcement the lowest priority of the police department, he has kept the police at a distance during the city's annual Hempfest celebration, standing on the outskirts to watch for possible signs of disruption but not making a move to arrest or bother the hordes of people lighting up, and he has cooperated in the city's needle-exchange program for heroin addicts. Washington has a medical marijuana law and Kerlikowske doesn't seem to have worked to undermine it. He has said, and observers have said that under him the emphasis of the "czar's" office will focus more on prevention and demand reduction than incarceration and even interdiction. And he's made some of the right enemies.

On the other hand, he has hardly been a crusader for drug law reform, as his predecessor as Seattle chief, Norm Stamper, has become. (It does seem to be the case that police and people in law enforcement tend to see the unwisdom of drug prohibitiuon after they have retiured -- their careers done and their pensions secure. All the more reason I have so much respect for my friend Judge James P. Gray, who began questioning prohibition in the early 1990s, when he was still a sitting judge; he only retired last year. I know his decision hurt his career.) And the word is that Joe Biden, an unreflective drug warrior who sponsored the bill to create the "drug czar" position, will play an active role in drug policies. Furthermore, they're talking about focusing on problems emerging from the bloody drug-police-cartel war in Mexico without a hint that they understand that U.S. encouragement has increased the violence and the least dangerous course would be to legalize drugs and reduce the monstrous profits.

But then there's Loretta Sanchez, not someone I ever expected to be a leader on an important issue, taking what is potentially a leadership position. Maybe she's found her issue? I hope so.

Then again, I happened to be at a Drug Policy Alliance function shortly after Bill Clinton was elected, and most everybody there was anticipating a new and more sensible day dawning. As we know, however, he set new records for federal marijuana arrests and prosecutions.

Keep your powder dry, pitchforks at the ready.

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