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Seattle's Top Cop to Be Obama's Drug Czar

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Seattle Police Chief R. Gil Kerlikowske will be the Obama administration's nominee as the next director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the White House has confirmed.

Multiple sources in the field also expect Tom McLellan, Ph.D., cofounder and CEO of the Treatment Research Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, to be named as deputy director of demand reduction at ONDCP. McLellan is a highly respected researcher who has done groundbreaking work in the areas of treatment quality and outcomes measurement.

A White House official confirmed Kerlikowske's nomination but not McLellan's; Kerlikowske and McLellan have both declined to comment.

Kerlikowske, 59, has served as chief of police in Seattle since 2000, and during his 36-year career in law enforcement was police commissioner in Buffalo, N.Y., and police chief in Fort Pierce, Fla., and Port St. Lucie, Fla. He is the current president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

If confirmed, Kerlikowske would replace interim ONDCP Director Ed Jurith, and succeed Bush administration drug czar John Walters.

“He has been very supportive of community-policing activities, human services and chemical-dependency programs,” said Ken Stark, former director of the Washington Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse and current head of the Snohomish County Human Services Department. “He is a team player and collaborative. Obviously his focus is in the law-enforcement arena, but he clearly understands the need for a healthy community and that that means more that just law enforcement – it needs to include other parts of the system, including chemical-dependency treatment.”

“The one thing I can say about Gil Kerlikowske is that he'll be a far better drug czar than his predecessor,” said Norm Stamper, Kerlikowske's immediate predecessor as Seattle police chief and currently the head of the drug-policy reform group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). “He's an intelligent, thoughtful guy … the jury's out on his views on the drug war. He opposed Seattle's I-75, which made simple marijuana possession the lowest enforcement priority in the city, but he's respected the law.”

Kerlikowske is better known for his work on gun control than drug control, but has worked with local drug courts and recently backed a Seattle program that allows police officers to divert drug users to treatment or job programs rather than jail. He has been honored for his work in preventing youth crime and violence, and chairs the board of directors at Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a law-enforcement group that supports effective youth crime-prevention efforts.

Washington State Rep. Roger Goodman, a member of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Substance Abuse, has worked with Kerlikowske on the King County Bar Association's drug-policy project. “As a practical and nonideological person, he's going to allow rational reforms to proceed,” said Goodman. “He understands that we can reform some criminal-justice practices to make them more humane and cost-effective without compromising public safety.”

Drug-policy reformers noted that Seattle has taken a progressive tack on issues like needle exchange, medical marijuana, and overdose prevention. The Obama administration has expressed support for needle-exchange programs and reportedly is reining in Drug Enforcement Administration raids against medical-marijuana providers.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, called Kerlikowske's selection as drug czar a “potentially transformative moment.”

“Kerlikowske is clearly familiar with drug policy reforms, and has not been a forceful opponent,” according to Nadelmann. “Although a police chief may not be an ideal pick, given President Obama's call for 'shifting the paradigm, shifting the model, so that we focus more on a public health approach,' we remain hopeful that he has the potential to provide much needed national leadership in implementing the president's campaign commitments.”

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