Pubdate: Thu, 12 Mar 2009
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2009 The Washington Post Company
Section: A 04
Author: Carrie Johnson, and Amy Goldstein


The White House yesterday said that it will push for treatment, rather
than incarceration, of people arrested for drug-related crimes as it
announced the nomination of Seattle Police Chief R. Gil Kerlikowske to
oversee the nation's effort to control illegal drugs.

The choice of drug czar and the emphasis on alternative drug courts,
announced by Vice President Biden, signal a sharp departure from Bush
administration policies, gravitating away from cutting the supply of
illicit drugs from foreign countries and toward curbing drug use in
communities across the United States.

Biden, who helped shape the Office of National Drug Control Policy as
a U.S. senator in the 1980s, said the Obama administration would
continue to focus on the southwest border, where Mexican authorities
are facing thousands of drug-related murders and unchecked violence
from drug cartels moving cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine into
American markets. But it remained unclear how the new administration
would engineer its budget to tackle the problem.

Since President Richard Nixon first declared a war on drugs nearly
four decades ago, the government has spent billions of dollars with
mixed results, according to independent studies and drug policy
scholars. In recent years, the number of high-school-age children
abusing illegal substances has dipped, but marijuana use has inched
upward, and drug offenders continue to flood the nation's courts.

"The success of our efforts to reduce the flow of drugs is largely
dependent on our ability to reduce demand for them," Kerlikowske said
yesterday at a ceremony attended by his former law enforcement
colleagues. "Our nation's drug problem is one of human suffering, and
as a police officer but also in my own family, I have experienced the
effects that drugs can have."

Kerlikowske's adult stepson, Jeffrey, has been arrested in the past on
drug charges, an issue that the police chief referenced in his remarks

Kerlikowske's top deputy is expected to be A. Thomas McLellan, a
professor at the University of Pennsylvania medical college and the
chief executive of the Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia,
according to two sources in the drug control community who said the
selection underscored the administration's philosophy of
rehabilitation and outreach.

On the campaign trail, Obama and Biden promised to offer first-time,
nonviolent offenders a chance to serve their sentences in a drug
rehabilitation center rather than a stint in federal prison. In
promoting wider use of drug courts, the administration is embracing an
idea that has broad support in theory but has never been a main path
for people with drug addictions who are charged with crimes.

The nation's first drug court originated in Miami in the late 1980s at
the urging of Janet Reno, who went on to become President Bill
Clinton's attorney general. By the mid-1990s, the federal government
was providing money for communities to plan and set up such courts --
although not to help operate them long-term.

According to John Roman, an Urban Institute researcher who has studied
drug courts, they now exist in most of the nation's medium and large
counties, but they are used for only approximately 55,000 of the 1.5
million Americans with drug addictions who are arrested each year on
crimes. The Obama administration has not said how much money it wants
to devote to the courts' expansion.

In contrast to previous administrations, the Obama White House is not
giving the position of drug control director a Cabinet rank. The move
was intended to give a larger role on the issue to Biden, according to
an administration source. William J. Bennett, who became the nation's
first drug czar during the George H.W. Bush administration, said he
spent three weeks in a room with Biden, then chairman of the Senate
Judiciary Committee, hashing out the scope of the new job.

Yesterday, Bennett called on Kerlikowske to "get the public's
attention, get the president's attention, get the attorney general's
attention and put this issue back on the front burner."

Scholars said that emphasis on the drug problem waned after terrorist
strikes on U.S. soil in 2001, and never regained the spotlight or its
slice of the federal budget as attention and resources flowed to
national security.

John Carnevale, an economist who worked at the Office of Drug Control
Policy under three presidents, predicted that the Obama administration
would concentrate on reducing demand for drugs through high-impact law
enforcement and prevention efforts targeted at communities at risk.

Under Bush, money to international programs doubled, while funding for
prevention and treatment fell by one-quarter, he said. The Bush White
House devoted much of its attention to developing the 2008 Merida
Initiative with Mexico and Central American countries to support law
enforcement training and equipment there. In recent weeks, Mexico's
attorney general traveled to the U.S. to discuss ongoing cooperation
with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General
Eric H. Holder Jr.

"There was a complete mismatch between the rhetoric of the strategy,
which emphasized treatment, and the budget," Carnevale added,
referring to the Bush administration. "The long-run answer is for the
U.S. to curb its demand or appetite for illicit drugs. . . . The
national drug problem is a series of local ones, and they're not all

The office has drawn controversy recently. The outgoing director, John
P. Walters, was the subject of a congressional investigation for his
role in announcing federal grants in states where Republican lawmakers
confronted tight reelection efforts in 2006. Trade groups for
narcotics police officers complained about Walters's reluctance to
meet them to discuss policy and budget issues. Walters had written
widely for the Weekly Standard and other publications advocating for
stiff prison sentences and "coerced treatment."

Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who served as drug czar under Clinton,
said that Kerlikowske's background as a street cop would give him
special insight.

"I tell people if you want to understand the drug issue, talk to any
cop at random with more than 10 years on the force," he said.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
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