This morning the Center for Strategic & International Studies hosted a discussion with R. Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). The discussion was attended by a diverse set of individuals representing various non-profit and advocacy organizations, as well as at least one Ambassador from another country (Costa Rica). Kerlikowske started the discussion with a 20-minute presentation on the current strategy of the United States government in combating drug use. His talk focused on reducing drug supply by supporting alternative development projects in South American countries and improving resources dedicated to treatment, as well as the successful reduction of cocaine consumption in the United States. He also took several opportunities to point out his disagreement with legalization and decriminalization philosophies, although did not delve into why those would not be effective.
The question and answer section took up the rest of the allotted hour. Most of the questions were requests for more information about aspects of the current drug control strategy, such as exactly how development could be furthered in impoverished countries. Thankfully, there were outright calls for reform from some members of the audience, including an economist who was granted the first question and our own Devon Tackels. Devon asked a remarkably pointed question straight to the top dog, calling him out on his statement that the war on drugs has ended, yet the 60,000 (and rising) death toll in Mexico certainly still looks like war. Kerlikowske responded that this is a complex criminal problem that doesn’t end with the fight against drugs, but like most of his answers did not elaborate into details. Watch Devon’s exchange with the Drug Czar above or on YouTube!
While drug cartels do participate in a wide array of illegal activities, such as kidnapping, extortion, and human trafficking, the bottom line is that they get most of their profits from drugs, hence the name “drug cartels” rather than “extortion cartels.” Drugs are the easiest way to make money because there is a huge, voluntary demand for drugs across the world. No pressure is needed to make end users pay up, which is not the case with other forms of crime. Kerlikowske is right in that drug legalization would not eliminate cartels entirely, but to pretend they would remain as strong as they are by switching to other forms of crime is faulty analysis. For one, cartels would lose the majority of their profits immediately, and would have to downsize considerably to stay operational. Other forms of crime do not provide as much money as drugs, are not as conducive to facilitating corruption within government, and are relatively easier to stop. With police able to focus their resources on real crime, cartels would lose the upper hand quickly. In addition, many distributors at the bottom of the drug supply network, where all profits inevitably originate from, are nonviolent and would be unwilling to switch to alternative forms of illegal revenue procurement. Kerlikowske pretends that regulation would be completely ineffective, but evidence, compassion, and common sense prove otherwise.
At the end of the event, attendees were able to informally talk with Kerlikowske. Having not been able to ask my question during the actual event, I took the opportunity to do so here. I asked, “Mr. Kerlikowske, DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart recently said that the decision to use medicinal cannabis is between a patient and their doctor. Given this statement, and the fact that thousands of veterans report medicinal cannabis being the only medicine that works for them after trying dozens of prescriptions, are you considering moving cannabis to at least Schedule II?” Kerlikowske responded by first saying he was unaware of Leonhart’s comments, and that the FDA has a remarkable process for verifying safe and effective drugs (and they’ve never messed that up before). Unfortunately, the FDA only has experience with single-chemical pharmaceuticals, not natural products, and the overwhelming anecdotal and scientific evidence for cannabis’ efficiency seems to mean nothing to Gil. Every day that suffering patients go without medicinal cannabis is a day of living hell. To brush them aside and say we need to wait for more research is simply evil, considering humans have been using cannabis safely for over 5000 years.
Change is coming, Mr. Kerlikowske, whether your office is ready for it or not. Historically, truth has always prevailed, and this issue is no different.