Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske says one of his top priorities is curtailing abuse of prescription drugs such as the addictive painkiller OxyContin.
“We get overly concerned about (illegal) drugs coming in, but the pharmaceuticals are here already,” he said during an interview in Nashville on Wednesday.
He’ll push for more states to adopt prescription-monitoring programs, databases in which doctors and pharmacists log prescriptions for highly addictive drugs so police can track them.
Kerlikowske, who became director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy on May 7, described drug abuse as a “public health problem.”
But the former Seattle police chief added: “That doesn’t mean law enforcement doesn’t have a role to play.”
He said he was stunned to learn recently that more people in the U.S. die from drug use than from gunshot wounds.
“We’re going to shout that from the rooftops,” he said. “We have a national effort to combat swine flu. In the same way, we can bring all forces to bear on the drug problem.”
Kerlikowske said he supports drug courts that offer treatment instead of prison for addicts and use needle-exchange programs to prevent the spread of disease.
Priorities are changing
His approach marks a departure from the Bush administration, which heavily funded law enforcement task forces and advocated tough sentences for drug offenders.
The Obama administration wants to make sure that sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine are the same as sentences for powder cocaine. Right now, sentences are longer for crack-related crimes.
Attorney General Eric Holder also has moved to limit prosecutions of sick people or caregivers who use or dispense marijuana for medical reasons. He has said federal agents will seek criminal charges only when both state and U.S. laws are violated.
Under Bush, agents raided several centers that dispense marijuana in California, where state law permits its medical use.
On his first trip outside Washington since becoming drug czar, Kerlikowske told a law enforcement crowd Wednesday that marijuana should remain illegal, but he said public health officials — not police — should lead efforts to curtail illegal drug use.
“Legalization isn’t in the president’s vocabulary, and it certainly isn’t in mine,” Kerlikowske told 300 police officers, federal agents and law enforcement officials attending the National Methamphetamine Pharmaceutical Initiative in Nashville.
Kerlikowske sought to show strong support for law enforcement, making his first stop a 6:30 a.m. roll call at Metro’s Hermitage police precinct.
Yet, he favors a public health approach that emphasizes treatment and prevention over prison for drug abusers.
Tours residential center
After speaking at the law enforcement conference, Kerlikowske visited Davidson County’s drug court and its attached residential-treatment center. He also visited a residence for women with addictions who have been recently released from prison.
“The state of Tennessee has built all the prison cells it needs” but has not invested enough in treating drug abusers, Criminal Court Judge Seth Norman told Kerlikowske.
Norman presides over the drug court, which runs a two-year residential treatment program that now helps 116 people. He says the county could fill hundreds of treatment beds.
The new drug czar agreed.
“Rotating people in and out and through the (legal) system doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Kerlikowske said.