On October 1, just one month before Californians voted on Proposition 19, Sasha Abramsky spoke by phone with Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, about prospects for drug reform in America. Below is an edited transcript of the discussion. Click here to listen to a podcast of the full conversation.
America has obviously been fighting a war on drugs for close to forty years at this point. What do you see as being that war’s major successes—it’s D-Day landings, if you like—and what do you see as being its signal failures?
It’s easier to start with its signal failure. And that is to categorize the drug problem in the United States and the world as a war. As you’ve seen over the forty years we’ve had lots of different discussions around the term "war." War usually has a specific enemy, oftentimes fairly easily identifiable, and there’s an outcome—a win or a loss. And all of those things do not apply very well to the complexity of the drug problem. But there are some wins in some areas outside of the war analogy. The work the United States has done over the years in Colombia and the reduction of its coca crops, improvement in personal safety and the security of the government, and reductions in opium—poppy cultivation. The other win to bring to your attention—even though it was a simple phrase—"Just say no," under Nancy Reagan. Successive administrations have recognized the issue of the drug problem.
So even though you don’t like the phrasing, there was a public service in pushing it to the fore of the public discourse?
Yes. I think what we’ve seen over the years has been the drug problem is often something of a hidden problem or thought to be among minorities or among minority communities or the economically deprived. Now we talk about this problem much more publicly than we ever have. It’s important for any administration, regardless of party, to recognize the problems drugs cause among young people, the workforce, schools, in healthcare.
From the beginnings of the war on drugs, one of the consequences has been a greater proportion of criminal justice spending going toward drug interdiction and so on. On balance, has the country gotten bang for its buck?
It is misleading to characterize the drug efforts of the government—local, state and federal—with some type of definition of where the money is going. That’s incredibly simplistic and has done a disservice to the discussion. When it comes to "Should we be spending more money on prevention and treatment?" the answer is yes. It shouldn’t be an either/or, to take away money from interdiction or some other part. Part of the president’s strategy is, it really is comprehensive, and it doesn’t restrict collaboration or say law enforcement stays over here, prevention is over there, treatment is over there. These things should work in concert, be supportive of each other and be understanding of each others’ roles and missions and how they can help each other.
Obviously the drug issue transcends domestic issues. There’s a lot of concern at the moment that Mexico has become something of a narco-state and is at risk of becoming something of a failed state. How does that complicate US discussion of drugs and how to minimize the impact of drugs? Is it now more of a foreign policy conundrum than a domestic one?