The nation's drug czar traveled to California to highlight his contention that legalizing marijuana is not the answer to a drug war he acknowledged has not succeeded. Instead, Gil Kerlikowske stressed what he called a middle way: increased prevention and treatment.
Kerlikowske's stated reason for the drop-in visit Wednesday was an invitation from the Pasadena Recovery Center to participate in a round-table with drug treatment specialists that lasted less than half an hour. Before the event, he spoke to the media about his opposition to Proposition 19.
"The facts are that this proposition would not be helpful to the people of California," he said, insisting that it would not solve the state's budget crisis or reduce Mexican drug violence. He also dismissed the argument made by proponents that children would have less access to marijuana if it were regulated, noting that children can still find alcohol and cigarettes.
"Why do we think that we can suddenly do it with marijuana, which can be grown in a backyard?" he asked. "I think it's such a false promise."
The Obama administration has cranked up its efforts to defeat the measure. Last week, U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder said he would "vigorously enforce" federal narcotics laws, even if voters approved the measure Nov. 2, and "is considering all available legal and policy options."
Stephen Gutwillig, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said he was not surprised the drug czar found his way to California. "They have to fly people in from D.C. with the news flash that the federal government opposes marijuana," he said. "I'm shocked, shocked."
Kerlikowske also released an analysis showing that 47% of Californians receiving treatment for marijuana abuse are younger than 18, compared with 28% in the rest of the nation, and that 65% began using marijuana at 14 or younger, compared with 55% for the rest of the nation. It's the second time in a week that his office has highlighted data from previously released reports about drug use among young people, a critical issue for mothers, who are thought to be the swing vote.
Gutwillig said the analysis underscores the failure of the drug war. "Everyone agrees young people should not be smoking pot, and these statistics the drug czar cites are all the more proof of the failures of the existing prohibitionist regime. It doesn't work," he said. "We've driven this enormous market underground and driven young people into the arms of drug dealers."
The measure would allow Californians who are 21 and older to grow and possess marijuana. It would also allow cities and counties to approve marijuana cultivation, sales and taxes.
Kerlikowske, acknowledging that Californians seem to be looking for other ways to deal with drugs than enforcement, said he has focused more federal resources on prevention and treatment.
"I know clearly the frustration," he said. "The answer isn't legalization."