Some Find Hope for a Shift in Drug Policy
SEATTLE — Washington State law prohibits the possession of marijuana except for certain medical purposes. Hempfest is not one of them. Yet each summer when the event draws thousands to the Seattle waterfront to call for decriminalizing marijuana, participants light up in clear view of police officers. And they rarely get arrested.
“Police officers patrolling are courteous and respectful,” said Alison Holcomb, drug policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
One reason for the officers’ approach, said Ms. Holcomb and others who follow law enforcement in Seattle, is the leadership of R. Gil Kerlikowske, the chief of the Seattle Police Department and, officials in the Obama administration say, the president’s choice to become the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, known as the drug czar.
The anticipated selection of Chief Kerlikowske has given hope to those who want national drug policy to shift from an emphasis on arrest and prosecution to methods more like those employed in Seattle: intervention, treatment and a reduction of problems drug use can cause, a tactic known as harm reduction. Chief Kerlikowske is not necessarily regarded as having forcefully led those efforts, but he has not gotten in the way of them.
“What gives me optimism,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, “is not so much him per se as the fact that he’s been the police chief of Seattle. And Seattle, King County and Washington State have really been at the forefront of harm reduction and other drug policy reform.”
The White House has yet to announce the nomination of Chief Kerlikowske, and a spokesman for the Seattle police said the chief would not discuss the matter. His appointment would require Senate confirmation.
Chief Kerlikowske, 59, became police chief in Seattle in 2000, after serving as a deputy director for community policing at the Justice Department in the Clinton administration. While there he worked with Eric H. Holder Jr., then a deputy attorney general and now the head of the department.
Before going to the Justice Department, Chief Kerlikowske was the police chief in Buffalo and in Fort Myers and Port St. Lucie in Florida. Under John P. Walters, the drug czar during most of the administration of President George W. Bush, the drug office focused on tough enforcement of drug laws, including emphases on marijuana and drug use among youths. The agency pointed to reductions in the use of certain kinds of drugs, but it was criticized by some local law enforcement officials who said its priorities did not reflect local concerns, from the rise of methamphetamine to the fight against drug smuggling at the Mexican border.
“The difference is I’ll be able to call Washington and get ahold of Gil and he’ll answer the phone,” said William Lansdowne, the police chief in San Diego and a member of the board of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. Chief Kerlikowske is the president of the association. “He listens. He’s very open to new ideas. He’ll build cooperation.”
Chief Lansdowne added, “He’ll take a look at prevention as much as enforcement.”
But Chief Kerlikowske also has critics.
Norm Stamper, whom Chief Kerlikowske succeeded in Seattle, said he was a “blank slate” on drug policy. Mr. Stamper, who left office not long after the riots that broke out during a 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, supports legalizing marijuana and spoke at Hempfest after leaving the chief’s job. He said Chief Kerlikowske had not been a vocal supporter of some of the city’s drug policies focused on treatment, like a needle exchange program or a 2003 city ballot initiative, overwhelmingly approved by voters, that said enforcing the law against marijuana possession by adults should be the department’s lowest priority.
“The question is, if he were in a much more conservative community, would he attempt to turn that around?” Mr. Stamper said.
Others said that Mr. Kerlikowske’s role as a police chief put him in a delicate political position because he would not want to be accused of being soft on crime. They note that he did not actively oppose the 2003 initiative and that he instructed his staff to comply with it once it passed. They say that Seattle police officers in recent years have kept their distance from the sites of needle exchanges.
Drug arrests are down in the city and overall crime is at a 40-year low, though concerns have increased recently over gang violence.
Chief Kerlikowske has faced plenty of criticism during his time in Seattle. In 2001, a study found that more than half of adults arrested for drug crimes in the city were black, though less than 10 percent of the population was black. The chief vowed to address the disparity, and it has decreased.
In 2002, he received a vote of no confidence from the local police union. The year before, officers had been frustrated by his handling of a Mardi Gras riot in which one person died and dozens were injured. Some officers said they were prevented from intervening soon enough.
In 2007, a special commission found that the department had been too lenient in disciplining officers in certain situations.
In 2004, the chief’s duty weapon, a 9mm Glock pistol, was stolen from his unmarked police car while he and his wife shopped downtown on the day after Christmas. A police spokesman said later that the chief had accidentally left his car unlocked but that he had not violated department policy by leaving his gun in his car.
By WILLIAM YARDLEY
Published: February 15, 2009