Vice President Joe Biden was expected to name Kerlikowske as chief of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a job that requires Senate confirmation, at a midday ceremony, an administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the announcement had not yet been made.
Kerlikowske had been widely expected to be named to the position, after his name was leaked in early February. The administration official said the delay in announcing his appointment was not linked to disclosures that his stepson, Jeffrey, had an arrest record on drug charges.
He takes over for John Walters, who held the job under former President George W. Bush.
The administration official said that Biden was making the announcement given the "breadth of knowledge" he has on U.S. drug policy.
"The vice president will work closely with the director-designate to oversee both the international and domestic anti-drug efforts," the official said.
The agency will no longer have Cabinet-level status, but the official said that Kerlikowske "will have a seat at the table when important decisions are being made ... and full access and a direct line to the president and vice president."
Kerlikowske served a stint during the Clinton administration as deputy director in the Justice Department's COPS program, which promotes community policing. He has also held top police positions in Florida and Buffalo, N.Y.
Kerlikowske is viewed as a workmanlike, circumspect choice who has street perspective and the policy smarts to navigate the bureaucracy. As president of the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, he is known as a progressive and a proponent of community oriented policing.
Colleagues expect him to ramp up efforts to stem demand for illegal narcotics by emphasizing prevention and treatment.
"I would expect Gil to say there's absolutely a role that enforcement plays, but what other things do we need to do at the community and the state and federal level on prevention and intervention in order to be successful," San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis, a friend of Kerlikowske's and vice president of the Major Cities Police Chiefs, told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "If all we do is arrest people for drugs, we're missing the opportunity to get involved in the beginning and take people out of drugs. Gil gets that concept."
In the Clinton administration he worked on ways to monitor grants that the agency gave to local police efforts, and he frequently emphasized analysis and data, looking for "ways to prevent crime rather than reacting to it," said Tim Quinn, COPS acting director.
John Carnevale, an official in the drug office from its inception in 1989 until 2000, met Kerlikowske while working on ways to measure the agency's effectiveness. "He's big on accountability," said Carnevale. Kerlikowske's Washington and local policing background is a plus, particularly if other appointees bring a strong treatment and prevention background, he said.
Seattle activists who work on drug-reform issues called Kerlikowske smart and reasonable, and noted that his police department has largely abided by a voter-approved initiative that made marijuana possession the city's lowest law-enforcement priority.
Even at the city's annual Hempfest protest and festival, police arrest only a few people despite the open-air pot smoking, said Vivian McPeak, director of the event.
Douglas Hiatt, an attorney who defends medical marijuana patients, said the chief has tried "to do the right thing on medical marijuana. He's trying to get it across to his officers not to hassle patients."
Kerlikowske told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in December that if he went into the Obama administration, "At my age, at this point in my career, I'd want something where you feel like you could make a real impact."