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A POOR CHOICE FOR DRUG CZAR



Published: Fri, May 4, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



St. Petersburg Times: The man President Bush reportedly has chosen to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy takes such a hard-line, law-and-order approach to controlling illicit drugs that even former drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey is expressing concern. When it comes to punishing drug addicts, John Walters is no compassionate conservative.

Walters is a hawkish, supply-side drug warrior. As a former chief administrator to William Bennett, the nation's drug czar under the elder President Bush, Walters was known as a hard-nosed conservative who favored severe penalties for drug-related offenses over treatment for addicts. He was a vocal critic of what he called the Clinton administration's "commitment to a 'therapeutic state.'" And his record of emphasizing source interdiction and eradication over reducing demand has even McCaffrey openly fretting. McCaffrey told The New York Times that Walters once complained "that there is too much treatment capacity in the United States, which I found shocking."

Drug strategies: Nothing about Walters suggests he's a forward-thinker on drug strategies. He has supported policies to retain the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, and he wants to increase American military involvement in fighting drug cultivation overseas.

Americans are becoming more sophisticated in their understanding of our nation's drug problem. It used to be political suicide for a politician to embrace anything short of a punitive anti-drug policy. But Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico, a Republican, advocates a sensible approach to overall harm reduction, emphasizing treatment programs and public health over harsh penalties. The public's growing frustration with the law-and-order drug war has been in evidence at the ballot box. Since 1996, eight states have approved medical marijuana initiatives, and Californians recently passed Proposition 36 that requires treatment rather than prison for nonviolent drug offenders.

Same old, same old: Walters, though, reflects none of these nuances. He is same old, same old, and likely to exacerbate the worst elements of our nation's current drug policies: stuffing prisons with nonviolent drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences, clogging the federal courts with drug cases, expanding the role of the military in domestic law enforcement and, correspondingly, militarizing local police.

The recent downing of a plane carrying an American missionary family by Peru exposes the danger of a policy that entangles the U.S. military and intelligence agencies in the harsh drug enforcement programs of foreign militaries. Yet Walters strongly favors these relationships. He says fighting drugs at their source is cheap and effective. Funny, history teaches just the opposite: that battling cultivation at one source merely shifts it to another.

Before being inaugurated, Bush told CNN, "I think a lot of people are coming to the realization that maybe long minimum sentences for the first-time users may not be the best way to occupy jail space and/or heal people from their disease." Now he intends to choose a drug czar who is not one of those enlightened people.




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