R. Gil Kerlikowske speaks on his job as nation's drug czar

By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; A19

R. Gil Kerlikowske became director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy in May. Kerlikowske, 60, has worked in law enforcement for nearly four decades. Most recently, he was police chief for nine years in Seattle, where prevailing attitudes towards drugs are relatively liberal. Before that, he ran police departments in upstate New York and his native Florida.

During the Clinton administration, he was deputy director of the Justice Department's community-policing office. In his second stint in Washington -- as "drug czar," a term he dislikes -- he oversees a $428 million budget and a staff of about 100, working out of an eighth floor office across the street from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. His desk is flanked by two large flags.

Q. A few days after you started your job, you said you wanted to "banish the idea that the U.S. is fighting a war on drugs." Why get rid of the metaphor?

Most people don't see it as having been successful, and it really limits the tools you can bring to this complex problem. . . . When you are fighting a war, really, your tools are force, and this is as much a public-health problem as it is a public-safety problem. And we've been fighting it with mostly a criminal-justice lens.

You often talk of drugs as being a problem of both public safety and public health, but the idea of prevention and treatment is not new. So, what should the government do that hasn't been tried before?

One is the collaboration. . . . There was a woman who I met who lost a son to a fatal overdose and another child . . . was in recovery, so she knows this area very well. And she said, "We are a family: treatment, prevention and law enforcement." She said, "It's the only family I know [that] when the going gets tough, we circle the wagons and shoot in." The treatment people say, "Who knows if prevention works?" The prevention people say, "Gee, law enforcement only wants to jail, and why don't you give us the money?" The difference with us, this time around, is we are going to work much more together.

You have long been a proponent of drug courts that emphasize treatment instead of jail. The president has proposed $56 million to increase treatment capacity in drug courts, but is the government doing everything it could to expand treatment availability?

No. We should shout a lot more about the fact that they actually do work.

You have said that research suggests needle exchanges are effective in slowing the spread of HIV and other diseases. What is your thinking about whether the federal government should support them?

You shouldn't just be able to go into a needle exchange and get a clean needle. There should be . . . emphasis on treatment. . . . We see it as part of a broader issue, not as an individual needle exchange.

But there is still no federal funding for them.

Right. The person I've been dealing with is the AIDS czar in the White House, because this is an issue of disease prevention and also one that could be part of a comprehensive drug policy. I would just leave that one hanging out there.

You have said you've been "sort of shouting from the rooftops" about prescription-drug abuse. What's the big problem?

The 38,000 drug-induced deaths last year were greater than [from] gunshot wounds. . . . And yet, it's very hard to get attention. . . . People think about the drug problems that may flow into the United States from another country -- and these are coming out of medicine cabinets. We clearly can prevent that through parents being aware, lockable medicine cabinets, take-back programs for outdated prescriptions so they can be disposed of properly.

In June, the administration released a National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy. How does it deal with violence involving drug cartels in Mexico in ways different from the past?

It has an entire section on guns that had not been in the previous edition. The concern there was providing tracing systems to Mexican authorities, so they can see where the drugs they seize are coming from. . . . And the second part is, there is a greatly enhanced exchange of intelligence.

When will your office be putting out a National Drug Control Strategy?

It was required to come out the first of February, but since this was the president's first strategy -- and his direction to me was to get as much input as possible -- I've been on a plane every week visiting other localities to find out what the concerns are and what should be in there. So, I'm a little delinquent in getting that report out, but I'd say, in the next few weeks.

How many hours do you work?

I'd say, it's 70-plus. I mean, I've always done that. It isn't anything particularly new, but you kind of reach a point where you think about how you can have another life. But right now, this is my focus.

Your stepson had his own trouble with drugs, and, last I knew, you hadn't been in touch with him for a long time.

No, I haven't.

What has that experience taught you?

I think that most people, they'll talk about a relative, a friend, a colleague who has cancer or has problems with alcohol. You know, given my age and my adoption of him at an early age, I would tell you it's still one of those things people are not comfortable talking about publicly. That's why I have this kind of opportunity to talk about addiction as a disease. . . . I think we are much more open in this country now to talk about it. There isn't anyone that is not affected by drugs -- friends, relatives, colleagues, neighbors. It's huge.

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