The Senate on Thursday approved the nomination of Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as the nation's drug czar, signaling a change in U.S. drug policy.
Kerlikowske, a 36-year law enforcement veteran who has been Seattle's top cop for nine years, has pledged to take a balanced, science-based approach to the job. He also said he will focus on reducing demand for illicit drugs in the United States — a sharp contrast from the Bush administration's focus on intercepting drugs as they cross the border and punishing drug crimes.
"Our nation's demand for drugs often fuels drug production and trafficking, as well as violence and corruption, within other nations," Kerlikowske said at his confirmation hearing for the job of director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The position is commonly known as the drug czar.
"Domestic drug use directly funds the terrible drug-related crime currently wracking Mexico and fuels illegal armed groups in Colombia," Kerlikowske said, adding that while he and other officials will work to reduce the international drug supply, "the greatest contribution we can make toward stability would be to reduce our demand for illicit drugs" in the United States.
President Barack Obama nominated the 59-year-old Kerlikowske — pronounced "kur-lih-KOW'-skee" — in March. The Senate approved his nomination, 91-1, on Thursday.
Kerlikowske has noted the human suffering caused by drugs — including his stepson, Jeffrey, who has an arrest record on drug charges.
As drug czar, Kerlikowske pledged "renewed focus on evidence-based approaches to reduce demand for drugs, through prevention as well as treatment." He also said he would work with other countries — and state and local governments — to create partnerships to reduce drug trafficking and use.
The drug policy coordinator's office will lose its Cabinet-level status under Obama, in part due to Vice President Joe Biden's experience and knowledge about federal drug policy. Biden helped create the post in the late 1980s while he was in the Senate.
Kerlikowske praised Biden's role fighting drug use and said the vice president will be a "key resource" for his office.
Biden said he was pleased by the overwhelming show of support for Kerlikowske and called him "the right man for the job."
"He has long been on the front-lines in the battle against drugs. And while the challenge before him is great, the president and I believe that he will lead our nation's efforts against illegal drugs with unshakable resolve," the vice president said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Kerlikowske highly qualified and said he was pleased that Kerlikowske "supports combating drug use and crime with all the tools at our disposal, including enforcement, prevention and treatment."
Before joining the Seattle force, Kerlikowske held top police positions in two Florida cities — Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie — and was police commissioner in Buffalo, N.Y. He served in the Clinton administration as deputy director of the Justice Department office that promotes community policing. He is president of the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, which represents the country's 56 largest law enforcement agencies.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based group that advocates alternatives to the war on drugs, said he was optimistic about Kerlikowske.
"Who better than a respected police chief to promote the new administration's commitment to moving drug control policy from a criminal justice to a public health focus?" he asked.