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Smooth Sailing in Senate for Drug-Czar Nominee

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The Obama administration's national drug-control strategy will be balanced, science-based, and include a budget containing “proven, effective programs” that will be rigorously assessed and adapted to changing circumstances, Obama drug-czar nominee Gil Kerlikowske told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

“I will work diligently to ensure that our efforts are supported by a properly balanced federal drug-control budget — one which logically implements research-based programs to support and implement that strategy,” Kerlikowske told the committee during his April 1 confirmation hearing. “There will be a renewed focus on evidence-based approaches to reduce demand for drugs, through prevention as well as treatment.”

Kerlikowske drove the point home by pledging to develop a “strong, transparent monitoring system” for drug-control activities. “While highly complex, performance evaluation of the national drug strategy is key to both validating and tracking the efficacy of the strategic goals and objectives established by the National Drug Control Strategy and the individual programs which are funded to support it,” he said.

“Chief Kerlikowske's statement that 'if you can't measure it, you can't improve it' is right on target,” said John Carnevale, head of Carnevale Associates and a former budget analyst for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). “His interest in performance accountability is precisely in tune with what the public expects — a results oriented national drug-control policy.”

The escalating battle between the Mexican government and that nation's drug cartels, along with its spillover into the U.S. border region, were top-of-mind issues for members of the Senate committee, which will vote later this month on whether to approve Kerlikowske's nomination.

“We face an increasingly globalized threat from drug trafficking organizations that's going to take a new, collaborative, comprehensive approach. This is evidently clear by looking at the news stories coming out of Mexico daily,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who along with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced Kerlikowske to the committee. “Our experience in Colombia has shown it is going to take a comprehensive strategy involving stakeholders at every level, and partnerships around the world, to end the flow of drugs that have such a disastrous impact on our communities. I'm confident that Gil will bring the collaborative approach needed to succeed. He is the right man for the job and the cop we need on this beat.”

Open to New Ideas?

Kerlikowske promised “restoration of the vitality of ONDCP,” with policy leadership built on “consensus on how to best use interdiction efforts, law enforcement, treatment, prevention, and sound research to achieve measurable results in reducing drug use and its consequences.”

“Dialogue will be continuous. Debate will be inclusive of new ideas. Deliberation will be comprehensive and collaborative,” said Kerlikowske.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, described the bulk of Kerlikowske's remarks “unexceptional” but said he was struck by the nominee's call for inclusiveness. “His comments about the need for continuous dialogue and the inclusion of new ideas represented a repudiation of ONDCP's modus operandi during the Bush administration,” said Nadelmann.

“If we ask Kerlikowske about legalization, the answer is going to be no,” Nadelmann acknowledged. “But at least our input will be heard. The center of the debate is moving in our direction.”

Kerlikowske, the former Seattle police chief, faced few tough questions and received a heap of praise at his Senate confirmation hearing. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) was perhaps the most aggressive questioner, peppering the nominee with queries on meth use in rural communities and on smuggling across the northern border in a parochial (though ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to get Kerlikowske to commit to directing more federal resources to upstate New York and expanding the scope of the existing New York/New Jersey High-Impact Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA).

In his responses to other questions from the panel, Kerlikowske took the opportunity to restate his commitment to breaking down the 'silos' between supply and demand reduction efforts, and strongly endorsed the concept of drug courts. He also said that ONDCP had been slow to address the emergence of methamphetamine use, which he characterized as a major problem in some communities even if not a major crisis on a national level.

Praise from the Field

Testimony submitted to the committee in advance of the hearing by a variety of addiction-related organizations, police officials, and others was universally positive. “We strongly believe that Chief Kerlikowske's extensive experience at the community level will provide him with the understanding necessary to implement critically important, effective reforms to our drug policy at the national level,” wrote Paul Samuels and Becky Vaughn, leaders, respectively, of the Legal Action Center and the State Associations of Addiction Services.

“Gil Kerlikowske knows the need for action against drug-abuse deaths at home and drug supply routes abroad,” wrote former Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey. Arthur Dean, chairman and CEO of Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, said that Kerlikowske is “singularly qualified to lead the nation's drug-control efforts” and “universally respected by the law enforcement, prevention, and treatment fields as a result of his steadfast work ethic, honesty, and demeanor.”

“He embodies all of the attributes needed to be both an effective manager and a visionary leader, and is a fierce defender of community-policing principles that remove barriers between the criminal-justice and prevention and treatment communit[ies],” wrote Dean.  

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