Obama Nominates Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as Drug Czar Today

Press Release March 10, 2009
Media Contact

Tony Newman at (646) 335-5384 or Ethan Nadelmann at (646) 335-2240

President Obama is set to nominate Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) today, according to the Washington Post. The director of ONDCP is more commonly referred to as Drug Czar. The Post is also reporting that the Obama administration will remove the position’s Cabinet-level status — overturning an elevation of the office under President George W. Bush. The Seattle Times, ABC News and other sources reported a month ago that President Obama was considering Kerlikowske for the post. The Washington Post reports that appointing him was delayed as information of drug arrests involving his stepson emerged.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a leading advocate of alternatives to the war on drugs, said:

“While we’re disappointed that President Obama has nominated a police chief instead of a major public health advocate as drug czar, we’re cautiously optimistic that Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske will support Obama’s drug policy reform agenda.

What gives us hope is the fact that Seattle has been at the cutting edge of harm reduction and other drug policy reform developments in the United States over the last decade. The city’s needle exchange programs are well established and harm reduction is well integrated in Seattle’s approach to local drug problems. Marijuana has been legal for medical purposes for a decade. In 2003, Seattle voters passed a ballot initiative making marijuana arrests the lowest law enforcement priority. And the King County Bar Association has demonstrated national leadership in exploring alternatives to current prohibitionist policies.

While Gil Kerlikowske has not spoken out in favor of any of these reforms, he is clearly familiar with them and has not been a forceful opponent. Given the high regard in which he is held by other police chiefs around the country, Mr. Kerlikowske has the potential to provide much needed national leadership in implementing the commitments that Barack Obama made during the campaign. He also surely recognizes that substance abuse or run-ins with the law can touch anyone, including his own family. He will hopefully advocate for treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent drug law offenders. Incarcerating someone because they have a drug problem is cruel and counterproductive, whether that person is a member of your own family or someone else.

As a presidential candidate, Senator Obama said the ‘war on drugs is an utter failure’ and that he believes in ‘shifting the paradigm, shifting the model, so that we focus more on a public health approach.’ He also called for eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, repealing the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs to reduce HIV/AIDS, and stopping the U.S. Justice Department from undermining state medical marijuana laws. Within 24 hours of taking office, President Obama had the White House webpage changed to reflect his support for eliminating the crack/powder disparity and repealing the syringe ban. Attorney General Eric Holder said at a press conference on February 25th that Obama’s position on ending medical raids is ‘now American policy.’

The Drug Policy Alliance will do everything in its power to ensure that the nominee for drug czar is thoroughly vetted at the confirmation hearings, and held accountable to the commitments and standards that President Obama has declared.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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