Although the title may sound like something you would call a drug cartel’s leader, “drug czar” is actually the name of the official in charge of federal drug control policy. Under the George W. Bush administration, this role was elevated to a cabinet-level position — a move that President Barack Obama is reversing with his pick for the job. Obama’s choice for drug czar could signal a much-needed change in the nation’s drug enforcement policies since the individual in question is likely to be a supporter of a more reasonable drug policy. Obama’s administration — and his new drug czar — should live up to expectations by adopting policies that treat drug users as people with addictions rather than as criminals.
Obama announced last Wednesday that he would appoint Gil Kerlikowske to be the nation’s new drug czar. As Seattle’s police chief for more than eight years, Kerlikowske has hands-on experience in dealing with the often devastating impact drug use can have on communities. In addition to this pick, Obama has decided not to continue the drug czar as a cabinet-level position, possibly indicating a more laid-back approach to a national drug policy.
With any hope, Kerlikowske’s appointment will represent a long-overdue shift in the federal government’s drug enforcement policies. Under George W. Bush, policies focused on punishing drug users. According to the Washington Post’s Mar. 12 article on Kerlikowske, funding for treatment and prevention decreased by 25 percent during President George W. Bush’s two terms. But Kerlikowske is expected to implement a policy that focuses on treatment and prevention rather than punishment. He has said that the best way to slow the flow of drugs like cocaine is to decrease usage, starting in local communities. The idea is to target the use of illegal substances by decreasing demand rather than just attacking the supply.
Education about drug use is the first component of a more sensible drug policy. By informing individuals about the harmful effects accompanying addictive substances, the government has the opportunity to prevent drug use before it leads to addiction — and potentially crime and other problems that can go along with it. And with additional education, individuals will be better equipped to make decisions about what they put into their bodies.
The Obama administration is also right to focus on rehabilitation and treatment over incarceration. Under the new drug policy, drug users will have a chance to serve their sentences in a rehabilitation center instead of in the already overcrowded prison system. This makes sense, considering that drug use isn’t a violent crime and doesn’t necessarily present a threat to others.
Focusing on rehabilitation is also a more humane approach. Just last week, a police officer shot an unarmed student in the chest during a marijuana raid in his residence hall room at Grand Valley State University. This sort of event is all the more common because of drug control policies that have targeted users rather than dealers. Addiction is a condition that calls for treatment and prevention — not overzealous enforcement.
Changing national drug policy to reflect the fact that users need treatment facilities — not police raids — is just one more way Obama is demonstrating his much stronger grasp of what constitutes sensible policy. Maybe his next decision will be to rename the position to something that screams “oppressive Russian autocracy” a little less loudly.