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INTERVIEW-US drug czar calls for end to 'war on drugs'
June 5, 2009 / 7:07 PM / 8 years ago

INTERVIEW-US drug czar calls for end to 'war on drugs'

*No plans to legalize marijuana

*Substance abuse treatment to get more funds

*May lift federal ban on needle exchange programs

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON, June 5 (Reuters) - The Obama administration’s top drug cop plans to spend more money on treating addiction and scale down the "war on drugs" rhetoric as part of an overhaul of U.S. counternarcotics strategy.

But don’t expect the White House to consider legalizing marijuana, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said on Friday.

"The discussion about legalization is not a part of the president’s vocabulary under any circumstances and it’s not a part of mine," Kerlikowske said in a telephone interview.

As head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Kerlikowske coordinates the efforts of 32 government agencies to limit illicit drug use.

He has been in office less than a month, but the Obama administration has already taken a less confrontational approach to the nation’s 35 million illegal drug users.

The FBI is no longer raiding state-approved facilities that distribute marijuana for medical purposes, and the White House has told Congress to eliminate the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine.

Kerlikowske said he hopes to ditch the chest-thumping military rhetoric at the center of U.S. policy since President Nixon first declared a "war on drugs" 40 years ago.

"We should stop using the metaphor about the war on drugs," said Kerlikowske, a career police officer who headed the Justice Department’s community-policing initiative under President Clinton. "People look at it as a war on them, and frankly we’re not at war with the people of this country."

Nevertheless, Kerlikowske also plans to disrupt trafficking across the Mexican border through a new focus on the guns and cash that travel south, as well as the drugs coming north.

U.S. drug policy has been criticized for focusing too much on fighting supplies from Colombia and other countries in South America and not enough on curbing demand at home, the world’s largest drug market.

BALANCING THE APPROACH

Kerlikowske said a more balanced approach was needed, with greater emphasis on treatment programs, especially in prisons.

"It’s clear that if they go to prison and they have a drug problem and you don’t treat it and they return ... to the same neighborhood from whence they came that you are going to have the same problem," he said. "Quite frankly people in neighborhoods, police officers, et cetera, are tired of recycling the problem. Let’s try and fix it."

Obama, who described youthful marijuana and cocaine use in his autobiography, has proposed a budget for the fiscal year starting in October that boosts funding for substance abuse programs by 4 percent to $3.6 billion.

Needle exchanges for intravenous drug users, now banned at the federal level, will be considered a healthcare issue, he said.

As Seattle police chief, Kerlikowske worked in a city that ran a needle-exchange program, celebrates an annual "Hempfest" that draws tens of thousands of marijuana smokers, and passed a referendum that made enforcing marijuana laws the department’s lowest priority.

Other state and local governments have loosened their marijuana laws as well. Medical marijuana is now legal in 13 states, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last month welcomed a public debate about proposals to legalize and tax the drug.

While that’s not going to happen on the federal level, Kerlikowske suggested the government should devote less effort to prosecuting nonviolent drug users.

"We have finite resources," he said. "We need to devote those finite resources toward those people who are the most dangerous to the community."

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)



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