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It's Official: Kerlikowske to Head ONDCP, But Won't Serve in Obama's Cabinet

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Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske has been officially announced as President Barack Obama's “drug czar” by the White House, but unlike his recent predecessors, he will not serve as a member of the president's Cabinet.

“With escalating violence along our Southwest border and far too many suffering from the disease of addiction here at home, never has it been more important to have a national drug control strategy guided by sound principles of public safety and public health,” said Obama in a March 11 press release. “We must demonstrate to our international partners, the criminal organizations threatening to undermine stability and the rule of law in those nations, and the American people, that we take seriously our responsibility to reduce drug use in the United States. Gil Kerlikowske has the expertise, the experience, and the sound judgment to lead our national efforts against drug trafficking and use, and he will make an excellent addition to my administration.”

In a White House ceremony, Vice President Joseph Biden — who helped create the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and has been a key architect of federal drug policy for decades — said Kerlikowske “brings a lifetime of experience working on drug-policy issues. He has worked on the issue at all levels from the Department of Justice to the front lines as a major city chief. He understands that combating drugs requires a comprehensive approach that includes enforcement, prevention and treatment.”

“What I find most appealing about [Kerlikowske] is that he says we can't operate in 'silos' — with barriers thrown up between the criminal-justice system, the prevention and treatment community, and the recovery components of this problem … He knows we need a comprehensive answer,” said Biden. “And that's exactly what the vision we had in mind when we first … created that office … We know we needed tough laws, and we have tough laws. But that wasn't enough. We needed a balanced approach in combating drugs — one that included prevention, treatment and enforcement.”

Kerlikowske echoed Biden's call for a “coordinated comprehensive national drug strategy,” stating, “For too long, we have operated … in silence when it comes to making our country drug-free and reducing the demand for drugs. It's an incredibly complex problem, and it requires prosecutors and law enforcement, courts, treatment providers, and prevention programs to exchange information and to work together.”

“The success of our efforts to reduce the flow of drugs is largely dependent on our ability to reduce demand for them,” Kerlikowske continued. “And that starts with our youth. 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 on our youth, our families and our communities.” Kerlikowske's son, Jeffrey, has a criminal record that includes arrests for marijuana possession and distribution, and was arrested last week for a parole violation in Florida.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), a frequent critic of former drug czar John Walters, said he did not know Kerlikowske but stated: “We need a drug czar who brings credibility and accountability to ONDCP while remaining committed to the law-enforcement efforts to limit both supply and demand in the ongoing battle against drugs. I'm particularly interested to see what the nominee has to say about addressing the country's methamphetamine problem, which has had a devastating effect in Iowa and other rural states.”

Demoted from Cabinet

Biden said he was “a little disappointed the last eight years [that the drug issue] hasn't gotten the attention that it should have gotten,” but the Obama administration also announced this week that the ONDCP director will occupy a less prestigious position in the White House: the “drug czar” will no longer be part of the president's Cabinet, although ONDCP will remain a part of the Executive Office of the President. Administration officials insisted, however, that Kerlikowske would still have direct access to the president.

In his remarks announcing Kerlikowske's appointment, Biden said that the “drug czar” position was established because “we had 32 agencies dealing with the drug problem and not a lot of coordination.”

“I believe[d] that we needed a drug czar, someone who could lead at a White House level, coordinating all our nation's drug policy, and I still believe that today,” said Biden.

Kerlikowske's appointment still must be approved by the Senate. His nomination won praise from a broad range of advocates and officials, including Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, Partnership for a Drug-Free America President Steve Pasierb, Police Executive Research Forum President Chuck Wexler, and advocates for drug-policy reform.

Biden said that Kerlikowske would face some “daunting” challenges, including developing a comprehensive strategy for combating drug violence and trafficking along the Mexican border, breaking the cycle of drug addiction and incarceration, countering “messages in the media that present inaccurate information and glamorize the use of drugs,” and mobilizing local communities to prevent youth drug use.  

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