Feature: Drug Czar Gets Grilled on "New Directions in Drug Policy" By Skeptical Solons, Activists, and Academics

Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday that the Obama administration is seeking "a new direction in drug policy," but was challenged both by lawmakers and by a panel of academics and activists on the point during the same hearing. The action took place at a hearing of the House Domestic Policy Subcommittee in which the ONDCP drug budget and the forthcoming 2010 National Drug Strategy were the topics at hand.

The hearing comes in the wake of various drug policy reforms enacted by the Obama administration, including a Justice Department policy memo directing US attorneys and the DEA to lay off medical marijuana in states where it is legal, the removal of the federal ban on needle exchange funding, and administration support for ending or reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders.

But it also comes in the wake of the announcement of the ONDCP 2011 drug budget, which at $15.5 billion is up more than $500 million from this year. While treatment and prevention programs got a 6.5% funding increase, supply reduction (law enforcement, interdiction, and eradication) continues to account for almost exactly the same percentage of the overall budget -- 64%--as it did in the Bush administration. Only 36% is earmarked for demand reduction (prevention and treatment).

Citing health care costs from drug use and rising drug overdose death figures, the nation "needs to discard the idea that enforcement alone can eliminate our nation's drug problem," Kerlikowske said. "Only through a comprehensive and balanced approach -- combining tough, but fair, enforcement with robust prevention and treatment efforts -- will we be successful in stemming both the demand for and supply of illegal drugs in our country."

So far, at least, when it comes to reconfiguring US drug control efforts, Kerlikowske and the Obama administration are talking the talk, but they're not walking the walk. That was the contention of subcommittee chair Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and several of the session's panelists.

"Supply side spending has not been effective," said Kucinich, challenging the budget breakdown.

"Supply side spending is important for a host of reasons, whether we're talking about eradication or our international partners where drugs are flowing," replied the drug czar.

"Where's the evidence?" Kucinich demanded. "Describe with statistics what evidence you have that this approach is effective."

Kerlikowske was reduced to citing the case of Colombia, where security and safety of the citizenry has increased. But he failed to mention that despite about $4 billion in US anti-drug aid in the past decade, Colombian coca and cocaine production remain at high levels.

"What parts of your budget are most effective?" asked Kucinich.

"The most cost-effective approaches would be prevention and treatment," said Kerlikowske.

"What percentage is supply and what percentage is demand oriented?" asked Rep. Jim Jordan (D-OH).

"It leans much more toward supply, toward interdiction and enforcement," Kerlikowske conceded.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) was more old school, demanding a tougher response to Mexico's wave of prohibition-related violence and questioning the decision not to eradicate opium in Afghanistan. "The Southwest border is critical. I would hope the administration would give you the resources you need for a Plan Colombia on steroids," said Issa.

"There is no eradication program in Afghanistan," Issa complained. "I was in areas we did control and we did nothing about eradication."

"I don't think anyone is comfortable seeing US forces among the poppy fields," Kerlikowske replied. "Ambassador Holbrooke has taken great pains to explain the rationale for that," he added, alluding to Holbrooke's winning argument that eradication would push poppy farming peasants into the hands of the Taliban.

"The effectiveness of eradication seems to be near zero, which is very interesting from a policy point of view," interjected Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL).

Kucinich challenged Kerlikowske about harm reduction. "At the UN, you said the US supported many interventions, but you said that, 'We do not use the phrase harm reduction.' You are silent on both syringe exchange programs and the issue of harm reduction interventions generally," he noted. "Do you acknowledge that these interventions can be effective in reducing death and disease, does your budget proposed to fund intervention programs that have demonstrated positive results in drug overdose deaths, and what is the basis of your belief that the term harm reduction implies promotion of drug use?"

Kerlikowske barely responded. "We don't use the term harm reduction because it is in the eye of the beholder," he said. "People talk about it as if it were legalization, but personally, I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about whether to put a definition on it."

When challenged by Kucinich specifically about needle exchange programs, Kerlikowske conceded that they can be effective. "If they are part of a comprehensive drug reduction effort, they make a lot of sense," he said.

The grilling of Kerlikowske took up the first hour of the two-hour session. The second hour consisted of testimony from Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann, Brookings Institute foreign policy fellow and drugs and counterinsurgency expert Vanda Felbab-Brown, former ONDCP employee and drug policy analyst John Carnevale, and University of Maryland drug policy expert Peter Reuter. It didn't get any better for drug policy orthodoxy.

"Let me be frank," said Nadelmann as he began his testimony. "We regard US drug policy as a colossal failure, a gross violation of human rights and common sense," he said, citing the all too familiar statistics about arrests, incarceration, the spread of HIV/AIDS, and drug overdose deaths. "All of these are an egregious violation of fundamental American values."

"Congress and the Obama administration have broken with the costly and failed drug war strategies of the past in some important ways," said Nadelmann. "But the continuing emphasis on interdiction and law enforcement in the federal drug war budget suggest that ONDCP is far more wedded to the failures of the past than to any new vision for the future. I urge this committee to hold ONDCP and federal drug policy accountable to new criteria that focus on reductions in the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drugs and drug prohibition."

Nadelmann identified four problems with current drug strategy:

  • The drug war's flawed performance measures;
  • The lop-sided ratio between supply and demand spending in the national drug budget;
  • The lack of innovation in the drug czar's proposed strategies;
  • The administration's failure to adequately evaluate drug policies.

"They want to move toward a public health model that focuses on reducing demand for drugs, but no drug policy will succeed unless there are the resources to implement it," said Carnevale. "Past budgets emphasizing supply reduction failed to produce results, and our drug policy stalled -- there has been no change in overall drug use in this decade."

Carnevale noted that the 2011 ONDCP budget gave the largest percentage increase to prevention and treatment, but that its priorities were still skewed toward supply reduction. "The budget continues to over-allocate funds where they are least effective, in interdiction and source country programs."

"The drug trade poses multiple and serious threats, ranging from threats to security and the legal economy to threats to legality and political processes," said Felbab-Brown, "but millions of people depend on the illegal drug trade for a livelihood. There is no hope supply-side policies can disrupt the global drug trade."

Felbab-Brown said she was "encouraged" that the Obama administration had shifted toward a state-building approach in Afghanistan, but that she had concerns about how policy is being operationalized there. "We need to adopt the right approach to sequencing eradication in Afghanistan," she said. "Alternative livelihoods and state-building need to be comprehensive, well-funded, and long-lasting, and not focused on replacing the poppy crop."

"Eradication in Afghanistan has little effect on domestic supply and reduction," said Kucinich. "Should these kinds of programs be funded?"

"I am quite convinced that spending money for eradication, especially aerial eradication, is not effective," replied Carnevale. "The point of eradication in Colombia was to reduce the amount of drugs coming into the US, but I see no such effect."

"We're dealing with global commodity markets," said Nadelmann. "If one source is knocked out, someone else will pop up. What's missing is any sort of strategic analysis or planning. If you accept that these drugs are going to be produced, you need to manage it to reduce the harms."

"The history of the last 20 years of the cocaine and heroin trade shows how much mobility there is in cultivation and trafficking," said Reuter. "What we do has a predictable effect. When we pushed down on trafficking in Florida, that lead to increases in Mexico. The evidence is striking that all we are doing is moving the trade."

Times are changing in Washington. What was once unassailable drug war orthodoxy is not under direct assault, and not just from activists and academics, but among members of Congress itself. But while the drug czar talks the happy talk about "new directions in drug policy," the Obama administration -- with some notable exceptions -- looks to still have a drug policy on cruise control.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Drug Policy

Portugal, Spain, Argentina, Switzerland, Mexico, etc. all have legalized personal possession amounts of "drugs" in the last decade. In each case, the changes have had positive results, and there is no call, in any of these countries, to go back to strict prohibition. The DEA told us the sky would fall in 1996 if California passed their medical marijuana initiative. It didn't. They lie, people die. It's time to end prohibition........again. Maybe we can learn something from history this time?

Does anyone have a link to

Does anyone have a link to see the video of this testimony? I'd like to get a look at it if I can.

Link to video testimony

Here it is:


It will automatically open up in Windows Media Player (at least, it did on my computer).

Jean Boyd's picture

The Turning of the Gigantic (Drug war)

"I havn't spent a lot of time thinking (about whether to put a definition on it.)", Kerlikowske said.
Kucinich is telling the truth. And Ethan Nadelmann, one of my favorite heros, said it all.

kerlikowske comments

I saw an television interview on MSNBC with the Director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, the Drug Czar, Mr. Gil Kerlikowske. On the subject of State governments getting revenue from marijuana sales, he claimed the idea was ludicrous. The host said to Mr. Kerlikowske, “ Shouldn’t we just try to figure how to get a cut of the money exchanged ( from marijuana sales).” Mr. Kerlikowske replied, “”Well, the debate would make very little sense for a whole lot of reasons. First the Rand Corporation took a hard look at what California said they could actually tax and make on this and they have huge questions and find that foundation weak. For instance alcohol, we get about a dollar in taxes and spend about eight dollars in social and healthcare and criminal justice costs. To think that we would make money or someone would make money is ludicrous.”
I almost do not know where to begin! Taken as they are Mr. Kerlikowske’s comments are as clear as mud. What Rand Corporation study? California’s legislators and economists estimate 1.4 billion dollars in revenue yearly. I find it hard to believe California’s experts could be 100% wrong in their estimates. Mr. Kerlikowske goes on to cite the social costs of alcohol. That would be relevant if we were talking about alcohol, but we weren’t, we were talking about marijuana. A drug that results in zero overdose deaths per year. A drug that despite 14 years of medical marijuana in California has resulted in no increase in domestic violence or traffic accidents. As far as criminal justice costs, there will be none with legalization.
I have to agree with what Mr. Kerlikowske said in the beginning of the interview about the debate on making revenue off marijuana sales to be one that makes little sense. The way I see it Mr. Kerlikowske’s comments on the debate and the whole issue of marijuana are what make little sense. I realize the Drug Czar has a hard job. Being required to say things about something that you know not to be true is always difficult.
Were it not that the Drug Czar is required to lie, by the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, about any drug that is listed as schedule 1, as marijuana is, we might be able to believe what he says but as it is now , everything he says on the subject is circumspect.
The Federal Government’s position on marijuana and the lengths it is willing to go to keep up the charade of marijuana prohibition is what is truly ludicrous!

Drug Wars employment opportunities

Excerpt from 'What is the Primary Fundamental Right?

"The Drug Wars is a total failure if it is designed to stop people from using drugs. Its apparent main function now is to keep lots of people employed by the various governments which in turn probably soaks up excess federal dollars thereby supposedly keeping inflation in check. This soak up is possibly part of the reason why US government workers earn on average about 50% more money and work about 50% less than those in comparable jobs in private industry . This probably means that 1 private industry worker is equal to about 3 or even 4 government workers."


True or False?

On October 7, 2003, The United States Patent and Trademark Office awarded patent #6630507* to the Department of Health and Human Services for their "invention" of the use of cannabinoids, acknowledging a wide variety of accepted medical uses in treatment and accepted safety for use under medical supervision.

So is the following statement true, or false?

"From the moment that the federal Department of Health and Human Services was issued a patent on the active ingredients in marijuana, marijuana and products including it's active ingredients ceased to be lawfully included in Schedule I."

Those who omit "legalization" from their vocabulary ought to be taught the definition of "restitution".

* See: http://tinyurl.com/classactionlawsuit

Drug Czar?

I don't think he needs to be the drug czar anymore. He is not doing ANYTHING about the "War On Drugs" In the border towns, it has become the "War on People". I live near the border and I hear gunshots every day and every night, who is going to get killed next?

If Cannabis was legal, it would be SO much better. The alcoholics would move over to cannabis and instead of being aggressive, they will be laid back. There would be a lot less DUI's. Like the book says, "Marijuana is Safer so why is it driving us to Drink?" Once people use cannabis, they will use less prescription drugs.

Find out who funded the Drug Czars Campaign. I wouldn't be surprised if drug companies did so! They don't want cannabis legal.


I love the repeated blatant acknowledgments (in the hearing video) that interdiction/supply side policy has no value in reducing drug harm in the united states - that they need to do this for other reasons. Not that its exactly a great thing to hear your own government admit, but we've all been screaming for years that they dont do this to "help" us, and its about time they own up to it.


I believe you meant "now" in the final paragraph here:

"What was once unassailable drug war orthodoxy is not under direct assault, and not just from activists and academics, but among members of Congress itself. "

It's disgusting

that the leaders of the most powerful nation on Earth have nothing more important to do than worry about what's in my urine. The only "drug policy" our government needs is no policy at all.

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