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A Drug War Truce?

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Legalization is also backed by a growing number of veteran drug warriors. "The War on Drugs is a constantly expanding and self-perpetuating policy disaster," says Jack Cole, a former undercover narcotics agent who now serves as president of a group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which includes hundreds of former drug agents, police officers and judges. "If all drugs were legal and regulated we could have exactly the same demand for drugs in the U.S., but there wouldn't be any killings. Mexico's 7,500 deaths since the beginning of last year — all those murders just wouldn't exist."

Barack Obama, for his part, entered the presidency as the most outspoken advocate for drug reform since Jimmy Carter, who campaigned for marijuana legalization in 1976. As recently as 2004, Obama declared that it was time to "rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws." On a personal level, the president has admitted not only to enjoying cannabis ("When I was a kid, I inhaled," he joked on the campaign trail. "Frequently. That was the point") but also to partaking in "blow" when he could afford it. Once in office, Obama moved swiftly to soften the tenor of the War on Drugs. Attorney General Eric Holder, during his first major press conference, announced that the Drug Enforcement Administration will no longer raid medical marijuana dispensaries that comply with state law.

"There were two striking things about that," says Mark Kleiman, who directs the study of drug policy at UCLA. "One was that the administration thought that they could get away with it. And the other is that they did! There was no outcry, or even an attempt at an outcry. The administration clearly thinks that being 'soft on drugs' is no longer a political vulnerability. And it looks like they're right."

Yet despite this sudden outbreak of sanity, rumors of the drug war's death are greatly exaggerated. Visitors to the drug czar's office in Washington — formally known as the Office of National Drug Control Policy — are greeted by the visage of Uncle Sam on a poster declaring, WE ARE AT WAR. ARE YOU DOING ALL YOU CAN?

The ONDCP occupies a warren of offices on the eighth floor of a soulless commercial office complex above a McDonald's, just up the street from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The offices themselves look as though Dwight Schrute spent an afternoon trying to dress up the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin to approximate CIA headquarters: In the secure waiting room, under a low-drop ceiling and the hum of fluorescent lights, a presidential seal the size of a dinner plate has been tacked to the wall above a forlorn plastic plant.

Gil Kerlikowske's appointment as drug czar has cheered reform advocates. As the police chief of Seattle, Kerlikowske honored a city law that called for possession of marijuana to be the lowest possible priority for law enforcement — even going so far as to permit partygoers at the city's annual "Hempfest" to smoke up with impunity. "When we talk about medical marijuana, needle exchange and harm reduction, we're not talking an alien language to him," says Nadelmann.

Kerlikowske — whose previous Washington experience includes a stint in the Justice Department as director of "community-oriented policing" under Bill Clinton — is a gruff man with an outsize head and a five o'clock shadow that gives even his broadest smiles the undercurrent of a snarl. When it comes to the impact of drug policy at the neighborhood level, he speaks with the easy, streetwise authority of a cop who spent 36 years in law enforcement. Yet when faced with questions about national drug policy, he can turn as evasive as Sarah Palin without a teleprompter. Does the tripling of marijuana arrests since 1990 represent good policy? He'd like to look at the issue more closely. Would the feds respect the laws of states that vote to legalize marijuana consumption for adults? A great question, he says — but one he won't venture to answer. Does the U.S. experience with Plan Colombia provide a template for dealing with the violent cartels in Mexico? He just doesn't know. "After three weeks, I'm still finding my way around the office," he says with a laugh.

Despite his short tenure, Kerlikowske is clear on one thing. Any discussion of legalization of marijuana is off the table. "It's not in the president's agenda under any circumstances," he says. "It's certainly not in mine."

When I press Kerlikowske on his recent statements about "ending" the drug war, he tells me that he was referring to the rhetoric. "It's hard for people to understand that it's a war on product and not on people," he says. The war metaphor, he adds, also discourages people from thinking about alternative solutions to America's appetite for illegal drugs. "If we continue to use 'war' after 40 years, it limits our tools to deal with it," he says. "Most people see the only effective tool in a 'war' is force."

His plan, Kerlikowske says, is to incorporate cost-effective programs for prevention and treatment of drug abuse to create a balanced, scientifically rigorous, economically sane approach to reducing American drug consumption and global drug traffic. "The next set of programs needs to be comprehensive — breaking down the silos that exist between treatment programs, prevention programs and the criminal-justice system," he says.

But even Bob Barr, the former GOP anti-drug hard-liner who now opposes the War on Drugs, questions whether the administration's "change in rhetoric is really going to have some meaning where the rubber meets the road — that is, with a reallocation of monies for the drug effort." An examination of the president's budget for 2010 suggests that the answer is no. Fulfilling a pair of campaign promises, Obama's budget more than doubles funding for drug courts that divert nonviolent offenders from prison into treatment, and provides $30 million to treat drug-addicted offenders who return to their communities. But taken together these two programs account for barely one half of one percent of ONDCP's $15 billion budget.

Overall, Obama's drug-control budget looks like the previous Bush budget on cruise control: Interdiction scores a bigger boost in funding than treatment. Funding for education and outreach programs designed to prevent the use of drugs, meanwhile, actually decreases. "It's more of the same," says Nadelmann. Despite Obama's campaign promise to allow federal funding for needle-exchange programs that prevent HIV transmission among heroin addicts, his budget continues to bar it. According to Kerlikowske, the president wants to "work through the Congress to gather support for the program."

Kerlikowske would not comment on funding priorities going forward, citing the ongoing development of the president's drug strategy. But he emphasizes that any new funding for treatment will not detract from the long-standing approach of cracking down on those who sell and use drugs. "If additional programs are created in the treatment and prevention area, it will not be at the expense of source-country eradication or law enforcement," he says. "This isn't an either-or proposition." The shift to less bellicose language, meanwhile, will have no impact on the Justice Department. "We're going to enforce the laws on the books," says Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who heads the DOJ's criminal division. "I don't really care if we call it a war or not a war."

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