Gil Kerlikowske is U.S. President Obama’s director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy—more commonly known as the U.S. “drug czar.” His long career in law enforcement included serving as police chief in two border cities: Buffalo and Seattle.
Q: In the November elections, two states—Washington and Colorado—voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use. President Obama has said that the U.S. government has “bigger fish to fry” than to go after recreational users in states where it is legal. Where do things stand with regard to producers and distributors of marijuana, which is still illegal under federal law?
A: You’ll continue to see enforcement against distributors and large-scale growers as the Justice Department has outlined. They will use their limited resources on those groups and not on going after individual users.
Q: You’ve written on the White House website that “coming out of the election, we are in the midst of a national conversation on marijuana.” Is the U.S. headed for a patchwork of policies, state by state?
A: I think a patchwork of policies would create real difficulties. We still have federal law that places marijuana as being illegal. The administration has not done a particularly good job of, one, talking about marijuana as a public health issue, and number two, talking about what can be done and where we should be headed on our drug policy.
Q: There was such an evolution on gay marriage within this administration that it’s hard not to think that something might change on marijuana.
A: I don’t look at marijuana as a human right, or a civil right, or even in the same venue as gay marriage. This is a public health issue. There are significant health concerns around marijuana from all the science, not ideology. I don’t see the legalization of drugs and making them widely available as a good thing, and I don’t think locking everyone up is a good thing either.
Q: When you took office in 2009 you said you wanted the Obama administration to drop the term “war on drugs.” Why?
A: It was mostly elected officials who would use “war on drugs.” But my colleagues—prosecutors, police chiefs, sheriffs, never really talked about it as a war on drugs—they would use the term “you can’t arrest your way out of this problem.” The “war on drugs” is a good bumper sticker, but we know that the drug problem is unbelievably complex. There is no bumper-sticker answer.
Q: Have you done more to deal with the medical side?
A: We helped shift federal funding so that more money has flowed into drug treatment and prevention programs. We have tried using the bully pulpit of the White House to talk about the disease of addiction and to talk about it in a public health model.
Q: What shaped your view in that direction?
A: I had been a narcotics detective and then a police chief in two large cities that had, like most of our large cities, a drug problem. We would regurgitate the same people through the system. They’d be arrested for crimes, but they’d have a drug problem. They’d go off to jail and then they’d be back. Often without treatment, without after-care, and unsurprisingly they’d be back into crime.
Q: So why not just treat drugs as a medical issue, the way alcohol abuse is treated. Why not just drop the criminalization?
A: We arrest about 2.4 million people in this country a year for alcohol. We arrest less than 700,000 people for marijuana—and for all drugs, only 1.3 million. Alcohol is perfectly legal. So making drugs available without any sanction would only lead to more abuse.
Q: You’re talking about drunk driving arrests?
A: This is drunk driving and, where it’s still illegal, public drunkenness or intoxication, and violations of liquor laws. Often when people talk about legalization of drugs, they say that should only apply to people aged 21 and over. Well, if you look at the number of youth arrested for alcohol, it’s significant. The other part is if people go into drug treatment—and the research bears this out clearly—if they knock on the door and say, look, I have a drug problem and I need help, or if they go in with handcuffs on—the outcomes are pretty similar. The criminal justice system, if it has the right resources, can be incredibly helpful at getting people into treatment.
Q: In Canada, a large party of Liberal party delegates voted in favour of marijuana legalization. The party issued a report speculating that thousands of Canadians could find employment related to marijuana and pot tourism—as Americans would flock north. What do you make of that?
A: Well, I think of the experience of the Netherlands—they’ve had marijuana cafés for decades and in the last few years the government decided to close hundreds. One of the primary reasons they cite is marijuana tourism—people coming in from Germany, Belgium and other places have caused crime problems and other difficulties.
Q: One area where you’d like Canada to get on the same page with the U.S. is prescription painkillers, specifically OxyContin, or a generic version that has been approved for sale in Canada. What is it you’d like to see the Canadian government do?
A: [Impose] the requirement that with opioid painkillers, only tamper-resistant or abuse-resistant formulas could be on the market. Those that are not tamper-resistant can be easily abused: they can be crushed and snorted, they can be crushed and diluted with water and injected. That presents not only a great danger of overdose, but also increases the abuse because of the high that they get.
Q: Why is that an issue for the U.S.?
A: In the U.S., we really pushed our pharmaceutical industry to develop the abuse-resistant formulas. But if they are easily accessible in Canada, you will see them here. Our first seizure of these was in Milwaukee. So we are keeping a close eye to see if we see others.
Q: And they came from Canada?
A: We are almost certain that they did.
Q: The Canadian health minister, Leona Aglukkaq, has said the law does not allow her to ban an effective drug on the basis of misuse. Instead, she is requiring dealers to report unusual spikes in sales. She also says there is no scientific evidence that an alternative drug is tamper-resistant.
A: One thing that comes up is what is the definition of tamper-resistant. Frankly, if we see the kind that cannot be crushed, or if they are diluted in water they turn gelatinous, then we see that as particularly helpful.
Our Congress has made it very clear on these issues that if we feel we lack sufficient legislation, given what we’ve suffered from, the deaths—particularly in poverty-stricken areas of Appalachia—then we should ask for additional authorities.
Q: So are you suggesting our health minister should ask for legal changes?
A: What we’ve done is to say once the problem has been identified and been well-publicized, then our elected officials have been very helpful.
Q: So you’re suggesting she should do the same?
A: I think I’ll leave it at that.
Q: How extensive is the problem?
A: It continued to grow up until this last year at astronomical levels. More people dying of prescription drug abuse than heroin and cocaine combined. After marijuana, we see prescription drugs as the next most significant drug problem we have. It has covered every demographic, age, race, ethnicity, gender. And it’s a bit disproportionate in poor and rural areas.
Q: Why is that?
A: It was called “hillbilly heroin” for a while. A lot of people, especially if you work in agriculture or mining, could become injured and then receive these painkillers, and from there they could be widely abused. We spent four days in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia visiting rural areas.
Q: What did you see?
A: I visited a jail with 14 women in for drug issues—and 13 were there for prescription drugs. In these small rural areas, there wasn’t anyone who wasn’t affected in some way.
Q: You are also working on a northwest strategy for the border with Canada. Is more marijuana grown there?
A: That was the fact a few years ago. But now the U.S. is doing a great job of producing its own marijuana.
Q: How is your relationship with Canadian officials?
A: I’ve had a long relationship at high levels with Canadian authorities. The one area I disagree with is the safe-injection site in Vancouver. I toured that as police chief in Seattle. I took a vacation day, in fact. I understood the purpose was to reduce overdoses and fatalities, and I believe that was accomplished, but it gave me the clear impression of a government that had abandoned people. I walked block after block and saw people nodding off in doorways and on benches. Yes, they’d injected safely and hadn’t overdosed, but there was nothing else for them but to continue to get other drugs. I’m sure this will be a controversial statement. I’ve been told it’s changed. And I should go back and visit.
To hear more of Luiza Ch. Savage’s conversation with Gil Kerlikowske, please see this week’s iPad edition of Maclean’s