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August 2012

Move Magazine talks with Drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

Tell me a little bit about the path you took to get to where you are today.

I had a long career in law enforcement. I was the police chief in Seattle, and one day at work I got the call from the office of the vice president to talk about this position at the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). As a police chief I found drug policy fascinating. And I quickly realized it was a much broader issue than I originally thought—it was way more than law enforcement; it’s dealing with treatment, prevention and education.

Please offer a brief overview of your job.

It varies day to day, but it’s all about drug control policy. I was in six cities last week—six cities in seven days—to hear from groups affected by and interested in drug policy. Each year, ONDCP releases an updated National Drug Control Strategy, and these trips give me the opportunity to hear from people all over the country who are working closely on this issue. This input helps us as we craft the Strategy. I work with a wide array of groups, and whether I’m meeting with the DOT or a group of doctors or working overseas, it’s all about policy. Much of the world’s research [about drugs] is done here in the United States, so we also go abroad and share our findings.

How do you feel about being known as the Drug Czar?

Well, I’ve given up fighting it, actually. Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy is quite a mouthful. Someone just started calling the person in this position the drug czar, and I think it just stuck.

What are the biggest challenges you face as the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy?

We’ve seen headlines about drug issues for decades. Some people don’t believe we are making progress, but we actually have seen some improvement. The rate of overall drug use in the United States has declined by roughly 30 percent since 1979. Since 2006, there has been a 40 percent reduction in the rate of cocaine use and meth use has dropped by half. Unfortunately, the abuse of prescription drugs is on the rise. That’s one of the issues I’ll be talking about with AAMVA.

You are scheduled to speak at the AAMVA annual conference in August about drugged driving. Why is this issue important to you?

Drugged driving is not really on the public’s radar, even though findings in the 2007 National Roadside Survey report identified problems associated with drugged driving. I think that—nationally—there’s very little recognition of this problem. DUI has long been recognized as a problem, and recently we’ve given a lot of attention to distracted driving. All of this public awareness is great, but we also really need to build awareness about the dangers of drugged driving.

What are the biggest problems associated with drugged driving?

First, there are people driving under the influence of combinations of different kinds of drugs. Then, there’s the problem of the technology and the testing available, which is limited. You can’t just do a breath test, and so you need to have people who can recognize and are able to testify to drugged driving. And that’s really difficult. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, there’s a fundamental lack of understanding that taking prescription drugs can impair a person’s ability to drive.

What are some of the goals that you want to accomplish as the Director?

I have a few five-year goals. In particular, the Administration would like to reduce drugged driving by 10 percent. Another goal of mine is to release a new Roadside Survey. The last one was in 2007, and the data was released in 2009. The surveys are normally issued 10 years apart, but we are working with the Department of Transportation to issue one this year. The information we would gather from this survey will help us gain a better understanding about the dangers of drugged driving.

What motivates you to do what you do?

I think the support I receive—especially the bipartisan support—is my biggest motivator. There’s not a lot of bipartisan support [in Washington], but in drug policy there is a lot of support from both Democrats and Republicans because they want to make a difference in people’s lives. Drug prevention and education is really something that needs to be made known. People need to be aware that change is possible, and that we’re here to support the health of citizens across the country.

Why did you decide to no longer use the term “War on Drugs”?

Well, first of all, I have never heard any of my colleagues in law enforcement or in policy making use the term “War on Drugs.” The term “War on Drugs” gives people the idea that there’s an absolute end to the global struggle with drug use. But more importantly, I don’t use that term because we are not at war with people. I think it was necessary to change the conversation away from that direction because it just doesn’t reflect our policies. The drug issue is really a complex public health problem.

How Do you think your career in law enforcement helped prepare you for this position?

I certainly saw the aftermath of drug problems—the effect it could have on people.

If you could switch professions, what else would you want to do?

I’d be a Formula 1 driver. Who wouldn’t want to drive those vehicles? It would be a great job.

First car?

1966 Pontiac. I loved washing and waxing that car. I actually still wash and wax my [wife’s] car on the weekends. Working in public policy, it can take a long time to see progress. But you can actually see the work you accomplish in half an hour washing your car.

Favorite driving movie?

I think the chase scene in Bullitt is absolutely one of the best. And that was back before they had all the technology they have to make movies today.