WASHINGTON – The White House on Wednesday 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 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 Joe 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 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 Wednesday 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 Wednesday.
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 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.