OTTAWA—Mandatory minimum jail sentences should be targeted at big drug financiers or traffickers, says the man appointed by Barack Obama to steer America’s drug control policy.
In an interview with the Star, Gil Kerlikowske, Obama’s drug czar, said lawmakers in “almost every single state” in the U.S. are looking to reduce mandatory minimum penalties because prison populations have exploded with non-violent drug offenders.
“Where a minimum mandatory (jail term) would be effective or helpful is in the financiers and traffickers in large amounts (who) are clearly doing this as a profit motive,” he said. “It takes them out of circulation.”
In the interview, however, Kerlikowske was clear that policy-makers should recognize there is “a distinct difference” between big-time narcotics offenders and others who come into the criminal justice system “who clearly have an addiction problem.”
“Then the focus of the sentencing, the focus of whatever law that exists, should be as much treatment as any punishment.” That should include treatment of drug addictions behind prison walls.
“Otherwise you’re just being dumb on drugs,” he said.
Kerlikowske, whose official title is Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, pointed to a move last month to change mandatory minimum sentencing laws for possession of crack cocaine — “the first mandatory minimum to be changed in 40 years by Congress.”
It raised the bar on when a five-year mandatory sentence for crack cocaine possession would kick in, from possession of five grams to up to 28 grams. It had bipartisan support and was changed to bring the law more in line with sentences handed down for cocaine powder possession.
Canada’s Conservative government has adopted a strikingly different “tough-on-crime” approach, proposing stiffer sentences and many more mandatory minimum terms for a whole range of offences, including drug crimes.
Kerlikowske said Obama’s Administration is advocating a more balanced and “comprehensive” approach than was taken in the past, and is turning to public health strategies, “smart policing” and “smart probation” programs.
In Canada to help unveil the publication of new Canadian standards for drug prevention programs for schools, communities and families, Kerlikowske praised Canada as ahead of the U.S. on prevention and ways to detect drug-impaired driving.
Kerlikowske, Seattle’s former police chief, was to meet with Canadian health and justice ministers, as well as senior RCMP officials.
In speeches, and to reporters Monday, he stressed that the U.S. has failed to shoulder its own responsibility and recognize it is a lucrative market for drugs produced abroad.
“Our demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,” he noted.
Although U.S. justice officials frequently blame a porous northern border with Canada for the influx of potent marijuana and precursor chemicals for other illicit drugs such as ecstasy, Kerlikowske declined to “wag my finger at Canadians.”
Kerlikowske said Obama’s drug control strategy is guided by “evidence, not ideology.” It supports “swift and certain but modest sanctions for using drugs” to offenders on probation, pre-arrest diversion programs, drug courts, and programs that treat addiction as a chronic lifelong illness like any other disease.
Kerlikowske supports needle exchange programs but not Vancouver’s downtown East Side Insite program after seeing it first-hand.
“To see the way people were left in the alleyways and flophouses after participating in the Insite, I would say is an example of government abandoning people.”
U.S. Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Gil Kerlikowske at the Rideau Club during an interview with the Toronto Star in Ottawa on Monday. (Nov. 22, 2010)
CHRISTOPHER PIKE/FOR THE TORONTO STAR
Published On Tue Nov 23 2010
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Small-time addicts don’t belong in jail: U.S. drug czar