Gil Kerlikowske: Obama's pick for border agency is a former cop who knows Canada well

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for President Barack Obama’s pick to head the powerful U.S. Customs and Border Protection will soon be held with blessings for the choice from Canadian and American officials who praise the nominee’s familiarity with America’s northern border.

Since 2009, Gil Kerlikowske, 63, a onetime police chief in Buffalo and Seattle, has been serving as the White House’s so-called drug czar — the director of its Office of National Drug Control Policy.

He’s argued in favour of the need to provide treatment to those facing drug charges rather than incarcerate them. Perhaps most famously, he signalled that the Obama administration would no longer use the term “war on drugs,” calling it counter-productive.

If he successfully acsends to the helm of Customs and Border Protection — a critical federal agency in an era of supposed Canada-U.S. harmony under the bilateral Beyond the Border initiatives — he’ll bring an intimate knowledge of the issues at play at the boundary.

While America’s southern border with Mexico is of greater concern to U.S. elected officials and the White House, the flow of marijuana and other banned substances over the northern border has long alarmed Americans.

Chuck Schumer, a Democratic senator from New York City, once even urged former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to permanently deploy military radar to detect low-flying planes transporting illegal drugs like ecstasy and methamphetamine over the border into the United States. The Canadian Border Service Agency didn’t immediately return calls on whether military radar is now in place at the border.

The Canadian American Business Council, with an advisory board of past and present Canada-U.S. ambassadors, sent a recent letter of support for Kerlikowske’s nomination to the Senate.

“We know first-hand that he understands the key role that effective border policy plays in our economy,” it read. “He has a deep appreciation for the unique opportunities and challenges that the Canada/U.S. border pose for our economy and society at large.”

Under Kerlikowske’s stewardship, the National Drug Control Policy office butted heads with Canada’s former health minister, Leona Aglukkaq, when she refused to ban generic forms of the painkiller once known as OxyContin that are more susceptible to abuse than newer versions of the narcotic.

The office sent out an alert late last year when Health Canada gave six drug companies the green light to begin manufacturing the generic forms of the drug. Purdue Canada, meantime, had replaced OxyContin with OxyNEO, an alternative billed as tamper-resistant – meaning it’s more difficult to crush and subsequently snort or inject.

“The potential exists for diversion into the United States because the old formulations, which are easier to abuse, are unavailable in the United States,” the dispatch stated. “This alert seeks to raise awareness of this change with the law enforcement along the northern border so law enforcement and border officials can work jointly to prevent diversion.”

U.S. officials are hoping Rona Ambrose, the new health minister, will be more receptive to making the change.

With Kerlikowske’s Senate confirmation hearings on the horizon — they’re expected to be held in early October — his office declined a request for an interview. But in past comments to the media, Kerlikowske has weighed in on Canadian drug policy, particularly on the OxyContin disagreement.

“In the U.S., we really pushed our pharmaceutical industry to develop the abuse-resistant formulas,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s magazine in February.

“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,” he said, adding his office was “almost certain” the drugs seized in Wisconsin originated in Canada.

He also questioned the efficacy of Vancouver’s safe-injection sites after touring them as police chief of Seattle, where he served from 2000 to 2009.

“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,” Kerlikowske said.

“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.”

Kerlikowske would take the helm of U.S. Customs and Border Protection eight months after what’s known as sequestration — $85 billion in budget cuts to a slew of federal agencies — raised concerns that the Beyond the Border initiatives would consequently grind to a halt. Napolitano, who left Homeland Security last month, publicly warned of long lines at the Canada-U.S. border as a result of sequestration.

But just this week, one of the department’s top-ranking officials said front-line border staffing south of the border hasn’t been overly affected by sequestration.

“We’ve been working closely with our Canadian colleagues in terms of keeping our colleagues aware and informed of any changes that take place,” Alan Bersin said at a Canada-U.S. border meeting in Detroit that wrapped up Friday.

“For the most part, we’ve been able to avoid border-related impacts that were originally feared as a result of the hard work of elected officials on both sides of the border …. Communication levels are up all across the board, including on those fiscal issues.”

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