Seattle Protesters Tell Drug Czar: Gil, Get With The Times
The Editorial Board’s meeting with Gil Kerlikowske turned into a big deal. Kerlikowske, the former police chief here in Seattle, is now director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. In other words, he’s the “Drug Czar” -- a title he made fun of in our meeting when he responded to a question by saying, “If I knew the answer, I’d be more than a czar. I’d be king.”
In the paper of Sunday, Feb 20, The Times published an editorial arguing that marijuana be legalized,regulated, taxed and sold by the state of Washington. Two days later we received a request from Kerlikowske’s office that he wanted to talk to us; he could pay a visit March 4 at 2:45 p.m. Sure, we said.
Clearly this was because of our editorial. I recalled a year ago, when I wrote a column saying that legalization was coming, and that I favored it, that I received a call from Kerlikowske's office for the first (and only) time. The Director would like to talk with me, the woman said. Would I be available at 3:00 the following afternoon? Yes, I said, I would. I wondered if he was going to chew on my ear, but in the event he missed the call, and instead sent me a copy of a speech he had given to police chiefs in San Jose.
This time around, the word got out, probably through me, that he had asked to speak to the Times Editorial Board. Dominic Holden of The Stranger called me and asked me about it and put out a report on their blog,The Slog. Holden quoted me accurately, but his headline framed Kerlikowske’s visit as an attempt to “bully” The Seattle Times. It was a stretch to call it that. Holden wrote that it was “an apparent attempt by the federal government to pressure the state's largest newspaper to oppose marijuana legalization. Or at least turn down the volume on its new-found bullhorn to legalize pot.”
NORML, The National Organization to Reform the Marijuana Laws, picked up the story from The Slog. Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, portrayed Kerlikowske’s visit as an effort to “squelch” our mainstream-media voice.
I started getting emails. Here was one from a woman in New Mexico:
“Please, give Mr. Kerlikowske hell for all of us. To want to actually come down to censure (and censor) your paper - your editorial opinion is downright unconstitutional and un-American.”
And this morning there were picketers from Sensible Washington, the group that ran the marijuana legalization initiative last year, and are running one, Initiative 1149, this year. They were picketing The Times in favor of our editorial stance and against Kerlikowske. Some of the signs portrayed his visit as an attack on the freedom of the press.
I couldn't think of anything Kerlikowske could do to squelch the freedom of The Seattle Times, and I never interpreted his visit that way. The folks that did were well-meaning, and regarding cannabis legalization I agree with them. But Kerlikowske was not bullying us, or threatening us, or attacking our freedom to air our opinions. As it turned out, he was cordial and almost laid-back. At one point he steered the conversation to prescription drug abuse, which had nothing to do with our editorial. When we asked him about legal marijuana he did disagree with us, but so gently that some of the attendees wondered why he had come at all.
Like many powerful people, he was careful what he said, responding to some questions without answering them as they were cast. For example, my first question to him related the costs of marijuana prohibition, and ended with the question of whether they were “worth it” (which I think of as “the Madeleine Albright question”). He didn’t answer it.
Later, when I asked him whether the War on Drugs was a success, he did a double-take: Didn’t I know that one of his first acts as Drug Czar was to declare the War on Drugs over? Hadn’t I seen that?
No. I thought the War on Drugs was still on.
“The War on Drugs is over,” he said. “We’ve stopped looking at it as a criminal justice issue alone.”
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