Pubdate: Fri, 31 Aug 2001
Source: Omaha World-Herald (NE)
Copyright: 2001 Omaha World-Herald Company
Author: Davis S Broder
Bookmark: (Hutchinson, Asa)


Washington - The high esteem in which former Rep. Asa Hutchinson of 
Arkansas is held by his colleagues was demonstrated by the 98-1 
Senate vote confirming him last month as the newdirector of the Drug 
Enforcement Administration. Even more telling was the fact that Rep. 
John Conyers of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary 
Committee and an ardent opponent of the impeachment of President 
Clinton, appeared at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to praise 
Hutchinson, who had been one of the Republican House managers 
presenting the case against Clinton to the full Senate.

In his 41/2 years in the House, Hutchinson, a former U.S. attorney, 
earned an estimable reputation as a thoughtful conservative and, as 
liberals like Conyers and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick 
Leahy of Vermont affirmed, as a fair-minded advocate.

Hutchinson will need all his skills in his new job, for the nation is 
clearly about to embark on a long-overdue debate on the so-called 
"war on drugs." The DEA is, as the name implies, primarily a law 
enforcement agency, but John Walters, Bush's choice to head the White 
House Office of National Drug Control Policy, has been in limbo, 
awaiting a confirmation hearing since May. Many of the same Democrats 
who welcomed Hutchinson's nomination have argued that Walters' 
hard-line approach, emphasizing interdiction and incarceration over 
education and treatment, makes him the wrong choice for "drug czar." 
At least until Walters' fate is resolved, Hutchinson is in the hot 
seat on Bush administration policy toward drugs.

During the last three decades, the United States has invested 
billions in fighting the scourge of drugs, and more and more serious 
people are questioning its effectiveness. The critics range from 
conservatives like Bill Buckley and New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson to 
an array of liberals, and they are having an impact on public 
opinion. While few agree with the editors of the influential British 
newspaper, The Economist, which last month laid out at length "the 
case for legalizing drugs," many more are expressing their doubts 
about current policies.

A Pew Research Center survey last February found that three out of 
four Americans believe "we are losing the drug war," and by a margin 
of 52 percent to 35 percent they said drug use "should be treated as 
a disease, not a crime."

In a recent issue of the American Prospect magazine, California 
journalist Peter Schrag pointed to the growing trend in the states, 
where initiatives allowing medical use of marijuana or mandating 
treatment rather than jail for drug-users have been winning large 
public majorities.

Hutchinson was dodgy in his confirmation hearing on the question of 
sending federal agents out to arrest doctors who prescribe marijuana 
as a pain- and nausea-relieving agent for cancer patients and other 
seriously ill people, as eight states now allow. The Supreme Court 
held earlier this year that the feds have that authority. When 
Hutchinson was asked if he would use it, he said it was something on 
which he needed to confer with the attorney general, adding that it 
was important "that we do not send the wrong signal ... that 
marijuana use is an acceptable practice."

But Hutchinson also applauded a bipartisan bill, crafted by Leahy and 
the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch of 
Utah, to expand funding of drug treatment programs, especially for 
prisoners and youths, and to increase the number of drug courts, 
where judges can order nonviolent drug offenders to undergo treatment 
and continuing tests rather than put them in jail.

Hutchinson took over his DEA duties last week at the same time the 
Department of Justice bragged that more people than ever are in 
federal prison on drug charges and are serving longer sentences. That 
report showed there were more suspects arrested in 1999 on charges 
involving marijuana than for powder or crack cocaine. A higher 
portion of the marijuana suspects who wound up in federal prison were 
simply users than was the case with any of the hard drugs.

That raises obvious questions about the priorities of federal drug 
enforcement agents and prosecutors. No one seems to know how many 
people are in state prisons for simple possession of marijuana. But 
in 1998, those prisons held 236,800 people convicted on drug charges 
- - 57 percent more than were there in 1990.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia 
University estimated in 1998 that 70 percent to 85 percent of all 
state prison inmates - not just those convicted on drug charges - 
need treatment but that only 13 percent of them get it.

The whole "war on drugs" cries out for re-examination.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Josh