Now that it's President Barack Obama's second term and all, drug policy watchers can rightly feel and act impatient. This was when the president would finally do something clear-cut about drug policy -- and specifically marijuana policy.
The Justice Department's non-intervention in Colorado and Washington's successful marijuana legalization initiatives -- in stark contrast to the DoJ's October surprise that helped kill California's Proposition 19 in 2010 -- was seen as more proof that something was at last stewing in Washington. Even Tea Partiers could get down with a shrinking Drug War bill; what better time than now?
Gil Kerlikowske is getting impatient. On a recent visit to Canada
-- where cannabis is decriminalized, hemp is legally grown, and the sky
has not yet fallen -- the U.S. drug czar admitted to public affairs journal Macleans that his bosses and coworkers
"have not done a particularly good job" of talking up marijuana as a
public health issue. Which is hard to do when, a few answers later,
Kerlikowske himself ranks cannabis as the nation's No. 2 drug scourge
behind prescription pill abuse.
In a wide-ranging interview, Kerlikowske is -- as always -- asked first about marijuana. But he quickly moves into the meat of the drug debate present day: prescription pills like the oxycodone that serves as "hillbilly heroin" in areas where even methamphetamine might be seen as a reasonable alternative. This is a Canadian issue, as pills that are easy to crush up and snort, cook, and shoot were seized in Milwaukee, and they "almost certainly" came from Canada, the drug czar said.
One wants to sympathize with Kerlikowske. He's not in an enviable position. When he warns of the "patchwork" of conflicting state and reminds us that federal law still makes marijuana illegal, he sounds not unlike someone trying to chaperone a college party. The rules changed a long time ago; where have you been?
But it's also a bit hard to take him seriously as he insists, against all odds and against science, that marijuana belongs in the same conversation as alcohol and prescription pills. Not long ago, he told a San Francisco audience that marijuana is not medicine (hopefully no AIDS or cancer patients or chronic pain sufferers were in the audience). And then in the same Macleans interview, Kerlikowske says that after "hillbilly heroin," marijuana is the country's biggest drug threat.
Strangely, Kerlikowske also drops debatable figures to Canadian media. Kerlikowske claims that drug war arrests have declined during the Obama Administration. While we can't say why any data-driven police officer would offer incorrect numbers, by the FBI's own statistics, drug crimes (aka "drug abuse violations") still account for more arrests than any other crime. So he's right: The White House hasn't done a good job in reshaping the debate as a public health issue. There are far too many people in handcuffs for that.