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Gil Kerlikowske to leave drug czar gig: What's it mean for Colorado marijuana law?

Gil Kerlikowske has been nominated by the Obama administration to become the new U.S. Commissioner of Customs -- meaning that he'll be giving up his job as the nation's drug czar.

This development will likely lead to an even longer delay in the federal government announcing its approach to marijuana laws in Colorado, where Amendment 64 passed last November, and Washington state. But could it also mean a moderation of policy? One cannabis advocate isn't ready to bet the pot farm on it.

In the first few months after A64 was approved by Colorado voters, parsing the remarks of Kerlikowske, formerly Seattle's chief of police, became something of a national sport among marijuana activists eager to learn how the Obama administration would respond to actions in Colorado and Washington.

A White House photo of Obama's sit-down with Barbara Walters.
A White House photo of Obama's sit-down with Barbara Walters.
Pete Souza

Take a January letter Kerlikowske wrote in response to a petition on the White House's We The People website calling for the feds to let the states move forward with their measures. The missive (read it below) quotes from a then-contemporary interview between Barack Obama and Barbara Walters, in which the President said individual users wouldn't be targeted while arguing against more universal legalization.

But prior to citing the Justice Department's ongoing review of the Colorado and Washington measures, and alluding to the differences between federal law and those in the states in question, Kerlikowske wrote, "Coming out of the recent election, it is clear that we're in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana."

At the time, Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority and a close follower of events in Colorado, interpreted the remarks in a positive manner.

"I guess it makes a difference when marijuana legalization gets more votes than your boss does in an important swing state, as happened in Colorado this last election," he replied via e-mail. "From 'legalization is not in my vocabulary and it's not in the president's,' as Gil Kerlikowske often used to say, to 'it is clear that we're in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana' is a pretty stark shift.

"Of course, what really matters is to what extent the administration actually shifts enforcement priorities and budgets," he added. "But I sure do like hearing the U.S. drug czar acknowledge the fact that marijuana legalization is a mainstream discussion that is happening whether he likes it or not."

Nonetheless, the Obama administration remained quiet about A64 in the days and weeks that followed -- and this silence has continued until the present day.

Continue for more about the impending departure of drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, including a document and video.

Tom Angell.
Tom Angell.

With that in mind, Angell is reluctant to see the drug czar's impending exit -- to take over a branch of government charged with goods moving from one country to another -- as an indication that the Obama administration wants a more moderate person in the post.

"I'd love to interpret Kerlikowske's departure as some sort of signal of a coming shift in the drug control strategy," he notes. "But nearly every time this administration has even more explicitly signaled a positive change, it hasn't followed through. There's no telling what this president will do next."

Be that as it may, Angell has a wish list when it comes to Kerlikowske's successor.

"I just hope that the next person he appoints as drug czar is a medical professional who will advocate treating drugs as a health issue and not also as a crime issue," he allows. "Kerlikowske talked the talk about the need for a health-focused strategy, but he didn't actually significantly shift the budget in that direction; too many resources are still going toward arresting, prosecuting and jailing people for what this administration says is a health issue.

"It's pretty interesting that a guy that gave so much lip service to the notion of treating drugs as a health issue just got appointed to oversee efforts to interdict drugs at the border," he adds. "So please, no more police chiefs or military generals as drug czar."

Below, see Kerlikowske's letter, followed by excerpts from Obama's interview with Barbara Walters.

Addressing the Legalization of Marijuana

By Gil Kerlikowske

Thank you for participating in We the People and speaking out on the legalization of marijuana. Coming out of the recent election, it is clear that we're in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana.

At President Obama's request, the Justice Department is reviewing the legalization initiatives passed in Colorado and Washington, given differences between state and federal law. In the meantime, please see a recent interview with Barbara Walters in which President Obama addressed the legalization of marijuana.

Barbara Walters:

Do you think that marijuana should be legalized?

President Obama:

Well, I wouldn't go that far. But what I think is that, at this point, Washington and Colorado, you've seen the voters speak on this issue. And as it is, the federal government has a lot to do when it comes to criminal prosecutions. It does not make sense from a prioritization point of view for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state that has already said that under state law that's legal.

...this is a tough problem because Congress has not yet changed the law. I head up the executive branch; we're supposed to be carrying out laws. And so what we're going to need to have is a conversation about how do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it's legal.

When you're talking about drug kingpins, folks involved with violence, people are who are peddling hard drugs to our kids in our neighborhoods that are devastated, there is no doubt that we need to go after those folks hard...it makes sense for us to look at how we can make sure that our kids are discouraged from using drugs and engaging in substance abuse generally. There is more work we can do on the public health side and the treatment side.

Gil Kerlikowske is Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy

More from our Marijuana archive: "Amendment 64 is now law: Governor John Hickenlooper quietly signs measure."