WASHINGTON — U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske is leaving office unceremoniously, forgotten long before he was ever known to most Americans.
But for those leading the push to legalize marijuana, he’ll be remembered as the tough-talking former police chief from Seattle who never yielded on the question of legalization, always warning of the health dangers linked to smoking pot.
That stance put him at odds with the growing majority of Americans who now back legalization.
As Kerlikowske, 63, heads for a possible job as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner, his exit prompts suggestions that America’s drug czar has become irrelevant and whether President Barack Obama should bother with a replacement.
“One of the most helpful things the president can do right now is to not spend money on filling that position,” said Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, whose office stopped prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana cases in 2010.
But legalization opponents say it would be a mistake to eliminate the office. They see it as a crucial vehicle for making clear to Americans the dangers and damages of a wide range of other drugs — from methamphetamine to cocaine to heroin — that the U.S. public wants kept illegal.
Kevin Sabet, who served as an adviser on drug issues to Obama and former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, said the drug czar could serve as “a powerful conduit for the direction of drug policy.”
He said the czar must make sure that the nearly one dozen federal agencies that deal with drug issues work in sync, but that the position had clear limits and no drug czar could legalize a drug that Congress had banned.
“Even if they wanted to, no one in the executive branch could legalize drugs … because the Controlled Substances Act is the law of the land,” he said.
In some ways, the debate over the office is as old as the federal government’s war on drugs, an effort that polls suggest has left Americans conflicted. While more now favor legalizing marijuana than keeping it illicit, it’s a recent turn of public opinion. And significant support for legalization remains limited to marijuana, not the harder drugs that draw most attention from the czar’s office.
Still, Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project in Denver, said the drug czar’s office had a long history “of ignoring evidence and wasting resources” on ineffective policies.
“There is no logical reason for our nation to continue down that path,” he said. He contended that Kerlikowske and previous drug czars “refused to acknowledge the simple fact that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol to the consumer and to society.”
Critics say the office, which Congress created in 1989, has no real power beyond doling out grants and providing a soapbox for government officials to decry drug use. Getting rid of the Office of National Drug Control Policy could save taxpayers a good chunk of money: For the 2014 budget year, the office asked Congress for $311 million, including $23 million to pay salaries and expenses for 97 full-time employees.
In May, Kerlikowske angered legalization backers by releasing a study that said marijuana was the drug most linked to crime in the U.S. At the same time, he described calls for legalization as a “bumper-sticker approach” that should be avoided.
Increasingly, he’s looked out of step, even with his bosses at the White House.
After voters in Washington and Colorado last year became the first to legalize marijuana for recreational use, Obama said he had “bigger fish to fry” than to worry about pot smoking in the two states. The number of states that allow medical marijuana recently hit 20, with Illinois and New Hampshire the latest to join the list.
Kerlikowske, who became Obama’s top drug-policy adviser in 2009, dismissed the legalization votes as “extreme” and gave a speech in April in which he said that no states or executives had the power to override the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Kerlikowske’s spokesman, Rafael Lemaitre, said the drug czar wasn’t granting any interviews as he awaited a Senate confirmation hearing for his new job. But he gave his boss high marks, saying he’d expanded drug treatment, helped reduce the stigma linked to addiction and helped steer thousands of nonviolent drug offenders into treatment instead of prisons.
“Today, for the first time in 40 years, the prison population is in decline, cocaine use is plummeting and meth use has been cut by a third,” Lemaitre said. “That’s what real drug policy reform looks like.”
Others gave the drug czar credit for his work in promoting addiction as a mental health issue, for trying to fight prescription drug abuse and for his focus on such things as community-based prevention and drug treatment courts.
“He has shown that it is possible to have a drug policy that is both smart and balanced,” Sabet said.