The White House Drug Czar's Diminished Status

These have been tough times for White House drug czar R. Gil Kerlikowske. After spending much of his first year in office crafting a new anti-drug strategy, he had hoped to unveil it two months ago with President Obama. But Kerlikowske couldn't get on Obama's schedule. When he pressed, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel directed him to Vice President Joe Biden, say two Kerlikowske advisers who asked not to be identified talking about an internal matter. But after agreeing to a joint announcement, Biden had to cancel at the last minute when the health-care bill landed on the president's desk. Appearing before a House subcommittee recently, Kerlikowske got hammered for not having yet produced the drug-control strategy that his office was charged with releasing by last Feb. 1.

"There were a huge number of issues going on," Kerlikowske says about the rollout delays. But, he tells NEWSWEEK, he's been assured that White House aides are "working on the president's schedule," and he expects an event with Obama in the next two weeks. ("It's a priority, but there are a lot of priorities around here," says a senior administration official, who asked not to be identified speaking candidly.) Will the unveiling be more than just a photo op? Kerlikowske vowed last year to take drug policy in a new direction: he said he was banishing the phrase "war on drugs," and he pledged more emphasis on treatment and prevention. But he was given little clout to make that happen. The White House removed his position from the cabinet and directed him to report to a Biden deputy. When Obama's budget was released, it devoted 64 percent of the proposed $15.5 billion for anti-drug spending to law enforcement and interdiction rather than treatment and prevention--about the same percentage allotted under George W. Bush.

The new strategy, sets a goal of reducing youth drug use by 15 percent in the next five years, and it asserts a commitment to "community-oriented" prevention programs and early drug-abuse screening by health-care providers. But even some administration officials say achieving these goals is unlikely given the budget's modest prevention increases. "We are missing an opportunity," says Kerlikowske's chief deputy, A. Thomas McClellan, who is resigning after less than a year on the job.

Critics are raising questions about whether Kerlikowske's office--with a staff of about 100 and a budget of $400 million--still serves a vital function. Created by Congress at the height of the drug war in 1988, the office has, at times, been led by formidable figures like Bill Bennett and Barry McCaffrey. Kerlikowske, who is barely on the public radar, disputes accounts that he's frustrated and lacks access. As for funding constraints, he says, "We couldn't have picked a more difficult economic time." But, he adds, "we're beginning to move this thing forward."