In January 1994, shortly after R. Gil Kerlikowske became police chief of Buffalo, N.Y. — an economically depressed, crime-ridden shadow of what had once ranked among America’s greatest industrial cities — he asked a local precinct captain to photocopy an important document.
“He said, ‘Commish, we don’t have copy machines. When we need to copy something, we go across the street to the Rite Aid pharmacy and do it there,'” recalled Kerlikowske. “I said, ‘I guess you don’t have computers either.’ He just laughed. They put license plates under the floorboards to cover up the rust holes, and they’d run the water all winter long so the pipes wouldn’t freeze.”
Within five years, Kerlikowske — often working 70 hours a week — had turned the Buffalo Police Department around. Among his accomplishments: lowering the city’s crime rate, dramatically improving police relations with the community, and introducing a variety of reforms including the random drug testing of police officers.
“In Buffalo, we had 13 precincts, which was far too many and far too expensive for a city that had lost population. We closed six of them, built some beautiful state-of-the-art police stations, and put computers in every location and in every police car,” he said. Some of these improvements were financed with hundreds of thousands of dollars in unclaimed cash the police department had accumulated over the years in yellowing envelopes from drug dealers and others booked into city jails.
“When he got here, we were still using carbon paper,” Buffalo Police Lt. Danny Williams told the Seattle Times. “He dragged us kicking and screaming out of the 19th century.”
Today, Kerlikowske is America’s “drug czar,” though his official title is director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Appointed by President Barack Obama in February 2009, the 62-year-old Florida native — who got his start in law enforcement as a high school photographer of crime scenes — spent nearly an hour last month with The Washington Diplomat.
We interviewed Kerlikowske at the agency’s headquarters on 17th Street, a few blocks from the White House. His fifth-floor office is decorated with seals of the police departments of both Buffalo and Seattle, where Kerlikowske also served as police chief, as well as that of St. Petersburg, Fla., where he first became a police officer. Also on display are framed photos of the “drug czar” with Bill Clinton and another former president, Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe, who’s widely credited with defeating the powerful cocaine cartels that had terrorized his country and controlled its economy for decades.
The first thing Kerlikowske wanted to make clear is that he really dislikes the “war on drugs” slogan.
“We used to talk about the war on cancer, and yet cancer is so incredibly complex,” he told The Diplomat. “The war on drugs made a great bumper sticker. Maybe it was meant to engender the will of the American people to tackle this really difficult problem. But I think it’s much more appropriate to put it in the context of public health.”
Yet decriminalizing any illegal substance — even marijuana — is definitely not the answer, he argues.
Speaking July 30 at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, Kerlikowske said there’s been “considerable discussion here and in Latin America” about Uruguay’s highly controversial move to make marijuana legal (Uruguay is just one of a number of countries in Latin America and Europe that has proposed decriminalizing recreational use of the drug).
“Too often, we face a polarized debate — legalization at one end of the spectrum and this ‘war on drugs’ at the other,” he said. “The Obama administration is committed to a third way forward. Legalization is not our policy, nor is locking every offender up. Our approach focuses on the public health challenge of drug consumption and science of addiction, and tackling the international security challenge posed by transnational criminal organizations. There are no simple answers to the global drug issue.”
Kerlikowske — whose career includes stints as an undercover narcotics detective, internal affairs investigator and police hostage negotiator — argues that “transnational criminal networks will not disappear if drugs were made legal. These organizations don’t derive all of their revenue from drugs, and they wouldn’t simply disband if drugs were legalized. They are diversified businesses, profiting from human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, intellectual property theft and other crimes.”
In fact, the profitability of drugs “is actually quite low” compared to that of other crimes like prostitution, piracy and the sale of human organs, he says, noting that “these groups are in business for money and power, and there is no limit to the schemes they will employ to extract illegal proceeds from our societies.”
While that may be true, drugs certainly help to fund the cartels that are waging a barbaric war for profits and turf in Mexico and parts of Central America. The ultimate destination for the marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines shipped along these transit routes is the United States, where consumers get their fix but don’t get the beheadings and accompanying violence that’s gripped their southern neighbors.
Which is exactly why leaders from Mexico to Guatemala say that if Americans didn’t snort so much coke, they wouldn’t have a bloodbath on their hands. They’ve increasingly pushed the United States to find alternative solutions to a decades-old strategy that views the issue solely through the prism of law enforcement, arguing that a greater focus on the demand side of the equation would not only reduce violence in their countries, but also free up resources in the United States, where drug addicts are more likely to wind up behind bars than in a treatment center.
Yet Kerlikowske points out that the number of cocaine users in the United States has fallen by 39 percent since 2011, while methamphetamine use has tumbled by 50 percent.
The drug czar also says it’s simply not true that America’s jails are crowded with otherwise law-abiding citizens serving time for marijuana possession.
“That was quite true in 1995, but all of our prison increases since then have been a result of minimum mandatory sentencing and abolishment of parole, where flat-time sentencing and ‘three strikes you’re out’ has led to the increase,” he explained. “You don’t find the jails filled with people charged with possessing small amounts of drugs.”
Despite the growing chorus of calls to consider legalizing small amounts of marijuana, Kerlikowske remains adamantly opposed to legalizing narcotics of any kind. He also says that chorus is not as loud as some people might think.
Since his appointment three years ago, Kerlikowske has made numerous trips to Colombia and Peru, and has been to Mexico five times. He’ll also be trekking to China on Sept. 10 to talk with Chinese officials about the supply of precursor chemicals used by drug laboratories, and later this year he’ll be flying to Australia.
More recently, Kerlikowske served as the top U.S. delegate to the June 25-26 anti-drug summit in Lima, Peru, where he said the contentious topic of legalization barely came up.
“There were 500 people representing 61 countries at that summit, and only three countries — Luxembourg, Guatemala and Costa Rica — talked about legalization,” he told us. “The rest of the delegates, the ones who actually have responsibility for people’s safety and security, expressed quite clearly that there was no appetite for legalization of drugs by the people they represented.”
Yet even close U.S. allies such as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos have pressed for a more open dialogue on the issue. Santos himself raised the question of whether marijuana should be regulated, much in the way alcohol or tobacco is, at the Organization of American States’ Summit of the Americas earlier this spring.
President Obama said he would be open to a debate about the effectiveness of current laws, but flatly said that “legalization is not the answer.”
Of course, Colombia — where a U.S.-backed military crackdown uprooted the drug cartels that had run roughshod over the country in the 1980s and ’90s — still serves as the model for a tough security-based approach against drug trafficking.
Last month, Kerlikowske announced that Colombian production of cocaine dropped by 25 percent in the past year and 72 percent in the past decade — from an estimated 700 metric tons at its peak in 2001 to 195 tons last year. That places Colombia third in worldwide cocaine production after Peru (325 tons) and Bolivia (265 tons).
Yet the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime disputes these findings, insisting that coca production in Colombia has actually gone up.
“There’s always been a discrepancy between the UNODC and ourselves, though both our technology and our methodology may be a little more accurate than theirs,” Kerlikowske politely suggested. “This is also because we back that up with field work. I recently met with Yury Fedotov [UNODC’s executive director] and told him we should really work to bring these studies into alignment.”
Regardless, he said, “There’s no question that the amount of coca production in Colombia has decreased.”
Kerlikowske, who has more than 37 years of law enforcement experience under his belt, said, “The security threat Colombia and the United States faced in 1999 is gone, and it has been accomplished without offsetting those results elsewhere. These lessons provide a model for dealing with challenges throughout the world, particularly in Central America.”
But he emphasizes that the U.S. approach in the region is not only based on security and ranges from treatment centers to gang prevention programs.
“We have been meeting with the Central American ambassadors quarterly, as a result of us reaching out to them and wanting to be able to talk more about drug policy,” he said. “This administration has a very different outlook on dealing with the drug issue internationally. We want to export more than helicopters. We want to export prevention and treatment programs that have been tested and actually work. It’s not always recognized that the United States can provide that.”
To that end, Kerlikowske recently visited Guatemala, where he met with President Otto Pérez Molina and also visited a women’s drug rehabilitation center in the capital.
“This Guatemalan treatment center met a public health need that’s not confined by national borders. In many cases, the women being treated at this center had made enormous sacrifices to be there, and their choices for treatment had been woefully limited before they arrived,” he said. “My point is that drug consumption isn’t just a U.S. or European problem; drug consumption is a significant and growing social problem in places we once called supply and transit countries.”
Through the administration’s Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), Kerlikowske said the United States is “helping to create safe streets in Latin America, disrupt drug trafficking, and support democratic institutions. But CARSI funding also goes to gang prevention and social programs for at-risk youth to provide healthy alternatives to substance abuse.”
The ex-cop, who’s credited with bringing Seattle’s crime rate to a 40-year low during his tenure there, said four decades as a police chief taught him that “you don’t change the level of crime in a neighborhood unless you first have safety going into it. In Mexico, people often want to use Colombia as a template. Colombia took well over a decade to make these significant changes. Their citizens were taxed at a level that allowed the government to provide infrastructure, safety and security, which made a huge difference. Reducing corruption is really at the foundation of all this.”
It’s also important, he said, to provide economically sustainable alternatives to farmers who give up coca production in countries like Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.
“Institutional support for alternative development is absolutely critical, whether it’s fish farming, cacao or other crops. The success has been pretty amazing,” said Kerlikowske. “This not only reduces the amount of drugs coming out of Latin America, but also ensures that farmers have viable alternatives to support themselves and their families as they turn to alternate, legal crops.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, the retail purity of powder cocaine purchased domestically has dropped by 28 percent since 2006, while the rate of Americans testing positive for cocaine in the workplace fell by 63 percent between 2006 and 2011, according to Kerlikowske’s office. And unintentional overdose deaths in the United States related to cocaine dropped 41 percent, from 6,726 in 2006 to 3,988 in 2009, the year for which the most recent data are available.
“In the last 30 years, drug use across the nation has generally declined, but there’s been some increase in the last couple of years,” Kerlikowske said, reflecting on what he describes as a complex, ever-morphing problem that defies easy categorization. “Prescription drugs not coming across any border have taken more lives than cocaine and heroin combined, and yet it’s been an unrecognized problem until about three years ago.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.