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.

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.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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