U.S. Drug Policy’s Third Way: A Conversation with Gil Kerlikowske

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U.S. National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske addresses the media during an anti-drug addiction meeting in Mexico City (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

U.S. National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske addresses the media during an anti-drug addiction meeting in Mexico City (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

Over the past year, public frustration in Latin America has been mounting toward the international drug control regime. Latin American leaders brought the drug policy debate to the forefront at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena last April, where the thirty-four heads of state agreed to review and discuss all possible approaches (a process that is now underway). This week at the United Nations General Assembly, Guatemala, Colombia, and Mexico’s governments issued a joint declaration, outlining their recommendations for global drug policy and specifically asking the United Nations to “exercise its leadership and conduct deep reflection to analyze all available options.”

To explain where the Obama administration drug policy stands, Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (aka the U.S. drug czar), spoke yesterday here at the Council on Foreign Relations. Kerlikowske began his remarks by pointing out that the most vocal participants in drug policy often come from the extremes: drug warriors and those in favor of full legalization. In between these two poles, Kerlikowske reasoned that space exists for a “third way,” one that conceives of drug use as a health problem, even as it supports law enforcement initiatives. The Obama administration’s policy is based in this complicated middle area, combining a strong focus on demand side prevention and rehabilitation with supply side eradication and interdiction.

Skeptics of this “new approach” look not just at the rhetoric but also at the resources. In 2011 prevention and treatment combined represented roughly 40 percent of the final budget for the national drug control strategy—sizable, but still less than half the total (and a lower percentage than at least in some periods of the previous Bush administration). Judging from the recent efforts of Latin America’s leaders, from Kerlikowske’s presentation, and from the CFR audience’s questions, it is clear that most see a need for a change in policy direction. It is also clear that a “third way” that satisfies the various national and international partners has yet to be put in place.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations