As the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, the former chief of police in Seattle, is charged with implementing the Obama administration's drug control programs and strategy. "Drug Czar" Kerlikowske spoke with The Texas Tribune on Tuesday about what's needed to curb drug addiction in the United States. The solution, he says, is a comprehensive approach balancing criminal justice, prevention and treatment options.
He also talked about the drug-related violence in Mexico, which many here say is the byproduct of the United States’ insatiable appetite for illegal drugs. Some say legalizing narcotics here would effectively siphon the power away from Mexican cartels. Not true, says Kerlikowske, citing as proof the growing addiction here to prescription — but legal — drugs that are taxed and regulated. He also shared his views on Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s fight against the warring cartels. “You have no alternative in Mexico but to confront these violent cartels. People can’t make peace with them. They are not going to change,” he says.
Below is an edited transcript of the interview with an accompanying audio clip of the conversation.
TT: What do you want people to know about the way you’re going to tackle the drug addiction problem in the United States?
Kerlikowske: We really favor this balanced approach. The drug issue in the United States has really been handled from the criminal justice view point, and they have an important role to play, but not enough attention and, frankly, not enough funding, has been given to prevention and treatment issues, and we have to have this whole approach rather than just the one.
TT: How long is it going to take for the philosophy to change? To addressing not only the illegal consumption and trafficking but also the prevention and treatment?
Kerlikowske: I don’t think it will take long, and that’s an interesting question. When people talk about the drug issue, particularly here, in a nation that consumes a lot of drugs, there isn’t anyone that you talk to about the drug issue that hasn’t been impacted. They have kids that are in school that can get drugs; they have neighbors or co-workers that have been affected by drugs. They realize it’s been around a long time. It’s entrenched, it’s a difficult issue, and it doesn’t lend itself well to a bumper sticker answer.
TT: What is being done? What is the actual black-and-white policy? What is in place now that wasn’t in place before?
Kerlikowske: The black-and-white changes would be the president’s drug control strategy that was issued by him in May of last year, which lays this out very clearly and also very clear goals over the next five years, particularly in reducing drug use among youth. The second part of the concrete proposal is the president’s request for an additional $200 million for prevention funding and an additional $137 million for treatment funding.
Audio Interview: Gil Kerlikowske
TT: You said in El Paso recently that decriminalization, or legalization of some illegal drugs is not an option, that is off the table. Why?
Kerlikowske: Well, one the administration’s stance is opposing legalization. When the president was a candidate, he opposed legalization. We don’t see any evidence that legalizing drugs and making them more widely available would be a help to anyone in this country. The second part is that, just from a common-sense standpoint, our No. 1 growing drug problem in the country, including fatalities, is prescription drugs. Well, prescription drugs are highly regulated, highly taxed, highly controlled, and yet we are completely incapable of keeping them out of the hands of kids, out of the hands of people abusing drugs and the evidence is very clear when it comes to fatalities and when it comes to emergency department visits.
TT: A lot of people here in Texas say the United States is responsible for the bloodshed in Mexico. Can you be a little bit more specific on why legalization would not quell the violence in Mexico?
Kerlikowske: I think the RAND Corporation study not only says that legalizing drugs would not reduce the violence in Mexico but the chaos could actually increase the violence in Mexico. The other part is that very rarely do I ever here any one in my seven trips to the border or my four trips to Mexico do I ever hear anyone blaming the United States. It used to be a very common term “Your drug consuming habits are fueling our violence.” I don’t hear that anymore. In fact the Mexican Ambassador here, Arturo Sarukhán, will tell you not to think of Mexico as just a drug-transit or a drug-producing country; it is also a country that is consuming drugs. We are all in this together, we all have our drug addiction problems and we all have our drug smuggling problems.
TT: If you could offer any piece of advice to Mexican President Felipe Calderón, what would it be?
Kerlikowske: I’ve had several meetings with President Calderón, and I have been there with Secretary Hillary Clinton, and I saw her statements in the press [Tuesday], and I am in agreement: You have no alternative in Mexico but to confront these violent cartels. People can’t make peace with them. They are not going to change, and taking them on has caused terrific violence. On the other hand, what absolute choice do you have when you have these kinds of enterprises? Everything that I have seen is that President Calderón is on the right path. People often talk about Colombia as a success, but I think people in Colombia are the first to tell you that that happened over many, many years. But he’s changing the judiciary, he’s improving the police and he’s increasing cooperation on intelligence sharing so I think there is a lot of movement in the right direction.
TT: Another thing that goes hand in hand when the flow of drugs north is mentioned is the flow of money and weapons south. Some people here have tried to discredit Mexican officials who say most of the weapons used in crimes in that country come from the U.S. Do you believe that is true?
Kerlikowske: I believe it’s a true fact. Believe me, I understand it’s not the only source of weapons, that weapons come from other military [and] from governments in Guatemala, Honduras, etc. But I’m clearly in the camp that says a large part of these guns that are recovered in Mexico have come from the United States, absolutely.