“Bumper sticker” approaches are politically appealing and popular, but they aren’t the right ways to deal with complex major issues connected to drugs and the toll they take, the nation’s drug czar said Wednesday during an appearance in Eckstein Hall.
Neither calling for a war on drugs nor calling for legalization of drugs are effective paths, said, Gil Kerlikowske, whose actual title is director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Smart, well-structured approaches that combine law enforcement, treatment options, and prevention efforts create a third path that can yield good results, Kerlikowske said.
The “drug war” of the 1980s and ‘90s was “a totally inadequate answer to what is really a very complex problem,” he said. Using law enforcement alone, “we’re not capable of solving drug problems.” But using multiple approaches can show genuine and positive results.
Kerlikowske cited a nationwide decline in cocaine use – he estimated the decline at 40% — as an example of multiple factors coming together to help reduce a problem. He said the factors include reduced cocaine production in Columbia, better interdiction of drug shipments by law enforcement, and widespread recognition among potential users in the US of the dangers and risks of the drug.
Formerly police chief in Seattle and Buffalo, Kerlikowske said of his fellow police chiefs, “none of us every talked about the war on drugs.” He said they knew “you can’t arrest your way out of this problem.” Kerlikowske said drug abuse is a disease that is diagnosable, treatable, and often preventable.
He was firm in opposition to legalizing drugs, includingmarijuana, and supported increased efforts to deal with abuse of legal prescription drugs. Prescription drugs kill more people than either gunshot wounds or automobile accidents, he said, a fact he described as eye-opening for him.
A lot has been learned about drug prevention programs and how to make them more effective, Kerlikowske said. He said research showed that if people reach the age of 20 without developing drug or alcohol abuse problems, the chances are very high they will never become abusers. And reaching young people, including through social media, with messages such as urging them to keep control of their own lives can be effective.
Treatment programs, including “drug courts” which can put a priority on how to get someone who has committed a crime on a better path in life, also bring good results, he said. Kerlikowske said anyone who isn’t moved by listening to the stories of people who “graduate” from treatment and other efforts ordered through a drug court “has a heart of stone.”
Asked by Gousha, Marquette Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, if implementation of the new federal health care law will have help deal with drug abuse, Kerlikowske said the law will make 23 million more people eligible for coverage of drug treatment
And asked about the passage of referendums in Washington state and Colorado that make adult use of marijuana for recreational purposes largely legal, Kerlikowske agreed the laws put the federal government in “a conundrum” because such use is illegal under federal law. He is not responsible for law enforcement and said he expects there will be decisions coming soon on what the federal approach will be.
“I think we’re in for a continuing confusing time,” when it comes to marijuana law and law enforcement, he said. But he was firm in opposition to legalizing marijuana. “We don’t see any of the science and the facts supporting this,” he said. He criticized state laws that legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes and expressed interest in work to provide medication that uses ingredients in marijuana without providing the “high” associated with it.
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, who also took part in the forum, said he supported Kerlikowske’s views on using multiple approaches to dealing with drug issues. Flynn said when he was a high-ranking Massachusetts public safety official, he oversaw the state corrections budget. He said he realized quickly that he was dealing not just with a prison system but with what was really the largest mental health, drug addiction, and alcohol addiction systems in the state. To reduce crime, you need to be effective in dealing with those issues, he said.
Flynn said the biggest drug problems in Milwaukee are related to marijuana. “Marijuana drives the trade right now,” he said. There is big money involved in marijuana dealing and it is a factor behind a lot of violence.
Kerlikowske’s title has often been reduced to “drug czar.” Asked by Gousha how he felt about that, Kerlikowske didn’t answer for himself, but said, ”My wife loves being called the czarina.”
Video of the conversation with Kerlikowske may be viewed by clicking here.