By Carrie Johnson and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 12, 2009; A04
The White House said yesterday that it will push for treatment, rather than incarceration, of people arrested for drug-related crimes as it announced the nomination of Seattle Police Chief R. Gil Kerlikowske to oversee the nation's effort to control illegal drugs.
The choice of drug czar and the emphasis on alternative drug courts, announced by Vice President Biden, signal a sharp departure from Bush administration policies, gravitating away from cutting the supply of illicit drugs from foreign countries and toward curbing drug use in communities across the United States.
Biden, who helped shape the Office of National Drug Control Policy as a U.S. senator in the 1980s, said the Obama administration would continue to focus on the southwest border, where Mexican authorities are facing thousands of drug-related slayings and unchecked violence from drug cartels moving cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine into American markets. But it remained unclear how the new administration would engineer its budget to tackle the problem.
Since President Richard Nixon first declared a war on drugs nearly four decades ago, the government has spent billions of dollars with mixed results, according to independent studies and drug policy scholars. In recent years, the number of high-school-age children abusing illegal substances has dipped, but marijuana use has inched upward, and drug offenders continue to flood the nation's courts.
"The success of our efforts to reduce the flow of drugs is largely dependent on our ability to reduce demand for them," Kerlikowske said yesterday at a ceremony attended by his former law enforcement colleagues. "Our nation's drug problem is one of human suffering, and as a police officer but also in my own family, I have experienced the effects that drugs can have."
Kerlikowske's adult stepson, Jeffrey, has been arrested in the past on drug charges, an issue that the police chief referenced in his remarks yesterday.
Kerlikowske's top deputy is expected to be A. Thomas McLellan, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania medical college and the chief executive of the Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia, according to two sources in the drug control community, who said the selection underscored the administration's philosophy of rehabilitation and outreach.
On the campaign trail, Obama and Biden promised to offer first-time, nonviolent offenders a chance to serve their sentences in a drug rehabilitation center rather than in federal prison. In promoting wider use of drug courts, the administration is embracing an idea that has broad support in theory but has never been a main path for people with drug addictions who are charged with crimes.
The nation's first drug court originated in Miami in the late 1980s at the urging of Janet Reno, who went on to become President Bill Clinton's attorney general. By the mid-1990s, the federal government was providing money for communities to plan and set up such courts -- although not to help operate them in the long term.
John Roman, an Urban Institute researcher who has studied drug courts, said they now exist in most of the nation's medium and large counties, but they are used for only about 55,000 of the 1.5 million Americans with drug addictions who are arrested each year on criminal charges. The Obama administration has not said how much money it wants to devote to the courts' expansion.
In contrast to previous administrations, the Obama White House is not giving the position of drug control director a Cabinet rank. The move was intended to give a larger role on the issue to Biden, according to an administration source.
William J. Bennett, who became the nation's first drug czar during the George H.W. Bush administration, said he spent three weeks in a room with Biden, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, hashing out the scope of the new job.
Yesterday, Bennett called on Kerlikowske to "get the public's attention, get the president's attention, get the attorney general's attention and put this issue back on the front burner."
Scholars said that emphasis on the drug problem waned after terrorist strikes on U.S. soil in 2001, and never regained the spotlight or its slice of the federal budget as attention and resources flowed to national security.
John Carnevale, an economist who worked at the Office of Drug Control Policy under three presidents, predicted that the Obama administration would concentrate on reducing demand for drugs through high-impact law enforcement and prevention efforts targeted at communities at risk.
Under Bush, money to international programs doubled, while funding for prevention and treatment fell by one-quarter, he said. The Bush White House devoted much of its attention to developing the 2008 Merida Initiative with Mexico and Central American countries to support law enforcement training and equipment there. In recent weeks, Mexico's attorney general traveled to the U.S. to discuss ongoing cooperation with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
"There was a complete mismatch between the rhetoric of the strategy, which emphasized treatment, and the budget," Carnevale added, referring to the Bush administration. "The long-run answer is for the U.S. to curb its demand or appetite for illicit drugs. . . . The national drug problem is a series of local ones, and they're not all identical."
The office has drawn controversy recently. The outgoing director, John P. Walters, was the subject of a congressional investigation for his role in announcing federal grants in states where Republican lawmakers confronted tight reelection efforts in 2006. Trade groups for narcotics police officers complained about Walters's reluctance to meet them to discuss policy and budget issues. Walters had written widely for the Weekly Standard and other publications advocating for stiff prison sentences and "coerced treatment."
Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who served as drug czar under Clinton, said Kerlikowske's background as a street cop would give him special insight.
"I tell people, 'If you want to understand the drug issue, talk to any cop at random with more than 10 years on the force,' " he said.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.