Drug czar: 'War on drugs' can only be won with prevention, treatment

Director of Office of National Drug Control Policy visits Baltimore

  • Rep. Elijah Cummings (left) tells a joke during a visit to Dee's Place, and Gil Kerlikowske, the White House's National Drug Policy Director, and his deputy directors Ben Tucker and David Mineta laugh. Kerlikowske and his staff visited several drug treatment programs and Baltimore City Police headquarter as part of a tour to promote President Barack Obama's strategy on reducing illegal drug use.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (left) tells a joke during a visit to Dee's… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
August 27, 2010|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

When the nation's drug czar visited Friday, the recovering addicts at Tuerk House in West Baltimore did a little showing off. Those taking the culinary jobs training course whipped up a lavish breakfast. Those in the landscaping and maintenance program spruced up the grounds.

"It's been a blessing to me," Mack Campbell, 56, said of the program that he hopes will finally break his personal cycle of addiction, imprisonment and relapse. "I'm learning how to live without drugs."

Inside, Gil Kerlikowske was offering much the same message — but on a broader level. The director of the Office of National Drug Control policy, who took office last year, was promoting the Obama administration's strategy of focusing on prevention and treatment rather than solely arrest and incarceration.

"I ended the war on drugs, if you didn't know this war was over. That was last May," Kerlikowske said. He characterized the decades-old war on drugs as an empty "bumper sticker," saying the country was ready for a more "complex discussion of a complex subject."

As with the war in Iraq, where combat operations officially ended last week, the fight against drugs continues but in a different form. During a day in which he toured several drug treatment and prevention centers and met with city police brass, Kerlikowske promoted a cooperative approach in which law enforcement, community groups, recovery specialists and job-training providers work together to combat the problem.

"It's not about being soft on crime or soft on drugs," he would say repeatedly throughout the day. "It's about being smart on drugs."

On this particular day, he was preaching largely to the choir, visiting Threshold to Recovery, a group of three community centers that offer 12-step meetings and alternative treatments such as acupuncture; the Tuerk House, where addicts can receive recovery assistance as well as train for jobs, and Jericho House on the east side, where two recently released convicts told of getting help battling their demons.

"All I know is drugs," said one man, who later asked that his name not be revealed. "This program helped me change my life."

He and the other recovering addict who spoke choked up with emotion as they talked about how their Jericho case managers called them daily, refusing to give up on them even when they had setbacks.

"Brother, there's nothing wrong with breaking down," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who joined part of the tour, told the men. "I gotta say to both of you brothers, I beg you to stay on the right side."

Kerlikowske also met with Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who hosted a presentation in a sort of war room in police headquarters where commanders meet regularly to share intelligence and strategy. It is familiar territory for the drug czar, a former cop who has served as chief of police in Seattle, Buffalo, N.Y., and other, smaller cities.

Kerlikowske's drug policy meshes with Bealefeld's philosophy of targeting the most violent criminals rather than conducting massive sweeps and arresting lesser offenders. It's the difference, Bealefeld told Kerlikowske, between "going in with a net and scraping up all these fish or going in with a harpoon and getting the lions and tigers and bears."

In many ways, Kerlikowske's approach is reminiscent of one pushed by former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. In 1988, Schmoke called for the decriminalization of drugs, saying that instead of declaring a war on drugs, the country needed to look at addiction in a more medical and humane way.

But as the crack epidemic of that era increased the number of users and the crime rate, Schmoke's call seemed out of step with the times.

More than 20 years later, however, there is growing consensus that, as Cummings said Friday, "We just simply cannot police our way out of this."

The officials were greeted warmly at every stop by groups grateful for the attention — and hopeful that Kerlikowske would help channel more funds their way. Driving through streets of boarded-up rowhouses and other signs of the impact of drugs on the city, he got an eyeful and an earful to take back to Washington.

"As a funeral director, I see the human damage every day," Eric March said at Kerlikowske's final stop in the Oliver neighborhood, where he met with the East Baltimore Drug Free Community Coalition. "I see young men, children in caskets."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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