By nominating Seattle's police chief as America's next drug czar, President Obama looks as if he's going for a balanced approach to a stubborn problem. As a policeman, Gil Kerlikowske understands enforcement. As stepfather to a son with a record of drug charges, he also understands the importance of prevention and treatment.
Only by squeezing on both ends – the supply and demand of illicit drugs – can America make headway in this decades-long battle.
The Bush administration did much on the supply front. It doubled funding for antidrug programs overseas and developed the 2008 "Merida" initiative to support Mexico and other Central American countries in fighting drug gangs.
A December report by Stratfor, which analyzes global trends, concludes these efforts are starting to pay off. Antinarcotics crackdowns in Columbia and Mexico are "making a big difference" and supply is "drying up." But the progress carries a high price. In Mexico, nearly 7,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence – much of it between cartels – since the start of last year. That violence now threatens the American Southwest.
Wisely, Mr. Obama supports Merida, and wants Mr. Kerlikowske to develop a southwest border strategy. To work, that strategy must include stopping the flow of US guns to Mexican drug cartels. The traffickers pay "straw buyers" to buy guns from US dealers, then transport them south. But stopping this won't be easy given the power of the US gun lobby.
During the campaign, Obama judged the war on drugs "an utter failure" – harsh words. But while the number of high-school-age kids using illegal substances has fallen recently, the US still has some of the world's highest rates of illegal drug use. The number of those jailed for drug offenses has soared from roughly 50,000 in 1980 to 500,000 in 2007.
With Kerlikowske, the administration wants to beef up drug prevention and treatment, which took a funding hit in the Bush years. At his nomination ceremony last week, Seattle's top cop said success depends largely on reducing demand – a point Mexico makes.
To do that, America must make far more use of drug courts, which divert nonviolent offenders to treatment instead of prison. Kerlikowske rightly praises these courts, which reduce recidivism and restore lives.
Kerlikowske will have to be careful he doesn't appear to be "soft" on illegal drugs. Seattle, for instance, is home to the annual "Hempfest," which police tolerate. That stance reflects a Seattle vote to make marijuana enforcement a low priority for police – a law Kerlikowske opposed. And it also doesn't help the "war on drugs" image that the White House has bumped the drug czar from a cabinet position.
Both Kerlikowske and Obama need to remind Americans that neither of them supports marijuana legalization (as Hempfesters do), and that shoring up treatment and prevention is not going squishy on drug enforcement.
Whether the administration will be able to seriously curtail demand remains an open question, in large part because so much of this fight takes place at the local level. But the Obama team is right to move in this direction and address the demand-side of the drug equation.