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March 4, 2011 at 6:02 PM

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An Hour with the Drug Czar

Posted by Bruce Ramsey

The Editorial Board’s meeting with Gil Kerlikowske turned into a big deal. Kerlikowske, the former police chief here in Seattle, is now director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. In other words, he’s the “Drug Czar” -- a title he made fun of in our meeting when he responded to a question by saying, “If I knew the answer, I’d be more than a czar. I’d be king.”

In the paper of Sunday, Feb 20, The Times published an editorial arguing that marijuana be legalized, regulated, taxed and sold by the state of Washington. Two days later we received a request from Kerlikowske’s office that he wanted to talk to us; he could pay a visit March 4 at 2:45 p.m. Sure, we said.

Clearly this was because of our editorial. I recalled a year ago, when I wrote a column saying that legalization was coming, and that I favored it, that I received a call from Kerlikowske's office for the first (and only) time. The Director would like to talk with me, the woman said. Would I be available at 3:00 the following afternoon? Yes, I said, I would. I wondered if he was going to chew on my ear, but in the event he missed the call, and instead sent me a copy of a speech he had given to police chiefs in San Jose.

This time around, the word got out, probably through me, that he had asked to speak to the Times Editorial Board. Dominic Holden of The Stranger called me and asked me about it and put out a report on their blog, The Slog. Holden quoted me accurately, but his headline framed Kerlikowske’s visit as an attempt to “bully” The Seattle Times. It was a stretch to call it that. Holden wrote that it was “an apparent attempt by the federal government to pressure the state's largest newspaper to oppose marijuana legalization. Or at least turn down the volume on its new-found bullhorn to legalize pot.”

NORML, The National Organization to Reform the Marijuana Laws, picked up the story from The Slog. Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, portrayed Kerlikowske’s visit as an effort to “squelch” our mainstream-media voice.

I started getting emails. Here was one from a woman in New Mexico:

“Please, give Mr. Kerlikowske hell for all of us. To want to actually come down to censure (and censor) your paper - your editorial opinion is downright unconstitutional and un-American.”

And this morning there were picketers from Sensible Washington, the group that ran the marijuana legalization initiative last year, and are running one, either Initiative 1148 or Initiative 1149, this year. They were picketing The Times in favor of our editorial stance and against Kerlikowske. Some of the signs portrayed his visit as an attack on the freedom of the press.

I couldn't think of anything Kerlikowske could do to squelch the freedom of The Seattle Times, and I never interpreted his visit that way. The folks that did were well-meaning, and regarding cannabis legalization I agree with them. But Kerlikowske was not bullying us, or threatening us, or attacking our freedom to air our opinions. As it turned out, he was cordial and almost laid-back. At one point he steered the conversation to prescription drug abuse, which had nothing to do with our editorial. When we asked him about legal marijuana he did disagree with us, but so gently that some of the attendees wondered why he had come at all.

Like many powerful people, he was careful what he said, responding to some questions without answering them as they were cast. For example, my first question to him related the costs of marijuana prohibition, and ended with the question of whether they were “worth it” (which I think of as “the Madeleine Albright question”). He didn’t answer it.

Later, when I asked him whether the War on Drugs was a success, he did a double-take: Didn’t I know that one of his first acts as Drug Czar was to declare the War on Drugs over? Hadn’t I seen that?

No. I thought the War on Drugs was still on.

“The War on Drugs is over,” he said. “We’ve stopped looking at it as a criminal justice issue alone.”

“Alone” is the key word in that statement. The Obama administration’s “middle position” on drugs that leans toward treatment but requires penalties also, he said, because about half the users who go into treatment “have to be encouraged.”

We asked Kerlikowse about the regime in Seattle, which voted in 2003 to make adult marijuana possession the lowest police priority, and last year, under City Attorney Pete Holmes, to stop prosecutions of simple possession cases.

Kerlikowske reminded us that he and then-City Attorney Tom Carr had opposed the 2003 initiative. “It didn’t change anything,” he said. “Marijuana possession cases among adults were not a particularly high priority for police resources anyhow.”

Not a particularly high priority--but still, the public vote in Seattle, and the subsequent turning out of Carr in favor of Holmes, did matter. Would Carr have tolerated Seattle's first Cannabis Farmer's Market, which took place last week? I'm not so sure. But Holmes did.

Kerlikowske offered several arguments against legalization. At one point he cited the RAND Corp. study as debunking the idea that a state would make money by selling cannabis through the liquor stores. I haven’t read the study, but the summary of it tells me the study was about how much legalizing marijuana in one state would affect the revenues of the Mexican drug cartels. It said it wouldn’t affect them a lot because they have other states and other drugs. But judging from the press release, the study does assume that if a state legalized cannabis, the Mexican drug cartels would lose the cannabis trade in that state. In other words, it assumes the very thing Kerlikowske doubted.

At other points in our conversation, Kerlikowske argued against legalization because it would increase usage by a dramatic amount. But if it did that, the state would be making money off it, would it not? (I not sure it would increase use by a dramatic amount, but I think it would increase it some, but that the possible negative effects would be hugely outweighed by the reducton in financial and human costs of prohibition.)

The big question of the hour was about federal response if the Washington Legislature did pass Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson’s legalization bill, H.B. 1550. Kerlikowske reminded us that the feds had agreed not to interfere with medical marijuana in those states that had passed laws allowing it (even though he thought medical marijuana was “an attempt to make it legal…by calling it medicine”). But what if the state law legalized it for general adult use?

“I can’t answer that,” he said. “That would be up to the Department of Justice.”

Really it would be up to one man: Barack Obama. Of course, he's the man who appointed Gil Kerlikowske.

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