Pubdate: Fri, 09 May 2003
Source: LA Weekly (CA)
Copyright: 2003, L.A. Weekly Media, Inc.
Author: Bruce Shapiro
Bookmark: (Walters, John)


The State Of America's War On Drugs 

It was November 6, just after last fall's election, and John Walters was
crowing. Three ballot initiatives seeking to legalize or decriminalize
marijuana in Arizona, Nevada and Ohio all went down in defeat. "These failed
initiatives represent the high-water mark of the drug-legalization movement.
Common sense has prevailed," he declared.

Unlike his predecessor Barry McCaffrey, Walters -- director of the Office of
National Drug Control Policy -- is not a military man. But this day, Walters
sounded very much like a commander who seizes upon success in one skirmish
to galvanize the troops: "From now on, the tide turns our way," he said.

Walters' enthusiasm was understandable. Until last November, most
drug-decriminalization measures nationwide -- 17 out of 19 -- had passed by
substantial margins. In 1996, the success of California's medical-marijuana
initiative took then-czar McCaffrey by surprise; while he wrote letters
opposing the referendum, he kept his office out of direct campaigning. The
collapse of this year's ballot initiatives came after unprecedented
intervention from Walters and DEA head Asa Hutchinson, who, with the support
of the Bush White House, campaigned personally and poured advertising money
into all three states. The campaign raised eyebrows from some election-law
specialists -- the decades-old Hatch Act forbids federal employees to
campaign in state and municipal elections -- but it had the desired result:
pouring a bucket of cold water over drug-reform advocates who had been
counting on a new decriminalization consensus emerging from those

But a turning of the tide in the war on drugs? In fact, recent developments
suggest that Walters' short-term victory rests on a very shaky foundation:
In one arena after another, the drug war -- and in particular the Bush
administration's strategy -- seems both more bogged down in a quagmire and
more unpopular than ever before.

Consider Texas, where, under former Governor Bush, a regional narcotics
task-force system evolved into a $200 million arrest machine. In
mid-December, the ACLU of Texas released a report documenting a grim pattern
of racial profiling and large-scale corruption among the drug task forces.
Nationally, journalists have covered a few of these scandals -- most
notoriously in the town of Tulia, where 10 percent of the community's
African-American residents were rounded up on the word of a corrupt
informant. But the new ACLU report makes it clear that Tulia is far from an
exception: African-Americans make up 12 percent of Texas' population yet
count for 70 percent of the nonviolent drug offenders in the state
criminal-justice system. The ACLU report documents 24 major Texas drug
scandals involving agents' falsifying of evidence, lying under oath and
other corrupt behavior. "People have lost their jobs, families have been
broken up, and children have been virtually orphaned as a result of the
massive racial profiling and corrupt practices of the task forces," says
Graham Boyd, director of the national ACLU's drug-litigation project, who
has given the Texas task forces relentless scrutiny.

Once upon a time, the ACLU's Texas report would probably have fallen on deaf
ears in a state long in love with a harsh law-and-order regime. But no more.
Not only are cases of large-scale racial profiling like Tulia a national
embarrassment but, equally compelling, Texas is facing a budget shortfall,
and -- as in states ranging from Connecticut to Oregon -- legislators are
taking a hard look at the cost of maintaining a prison system filled with
low-level offenders, and creating limited amnesties to stem the hemorrhage
of dollars.

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If racial inequity and corruption are the drug war's most evident long-term
pathologies, there are also steadily ripening crises afflicting the Bush
administration's particular approach -- an approach rooted not so much in
law enforcement as in moralizing about declining culture. It's a job to
which drug czar Walters is particularly suited: He began as an aide to Bill
Bennett, and in the mid-'80s co-authored a book with Bennett and political
scientist John Dilulio that predicted -- wrongly, it turned out -- a coming
"wolf pack" generation of amoral, crime-addicted youth. Walters brings the
same fear of imminent social apocalypse to the drug office -- one day urging
baby-boom parents to lie to their children about their own adolescent
marijuana use, the next mistreating doctors who prescribe marijuana for
cancer or glaucoma, the next complaining that teenagers see the world as a
"giant shopping mall."

As a messenger, Walters is constantly caught in a whipsaw between alarmism
and dubious claims of results. In September 2002, his office produced
numbers showing teenage substance abuse up across the board. In December,
another survey showed teen drug use down, which Walters claimed as a triumph
for "when we work together and push back." (Not coincidentally, Walters is
fond of asserting that drug use went down in the '80s and early '90s but
rose again in the Clinton years.)

It is, perhaps, this sense of America mired in '60s relativism that explains
the administration's obsessive focus on marijuana, with Walters' office
producing reefer-madness scare ads describing marijuana as a gateway drug.
But the trouble that Walters' personal culture war -- along with that of
Attorney General Ashcroft -- spells for sensible law enforcement is perhaps
most visible in the administration's campaign against raves. Beginning in
New Orleans in 2001, federal drug agents set out to clamp down on the city's
rave scene by banning symbols of rave culture -- glow sticks and the like.
But in 2002, that strategy was brought to an abrupt halt by U.S. District
Judge G. Thomas Porteous, who ruled, "There is no conclusive evidence that
eliminating the banned items has reduced the amount of Ecstasy use at
raves." Judge Porteous found that "the First Amendment right of Free Speech
is violated by the Government in the name of the War on Drugs, and . . .
that First Amendment violation is arguably not even helping in the War on
Drugs." Despite this rebuke, the federal DEA has since sent its agents to
more than 30 cities to train local law enforcement in how to squeeze raves
out of existence (a project urged not just by the White House but by
Democratic Senator Joe Biden, outgoing majority leader of the Judiciary
Committee's subcommittee on drugs, who has made shutting down raves a
personal crusade).

Ironically, it's a policy at direct odds with the Justice Department's own
advice, in a recently published advisory bulletin for community policing. In
calm, measured tones, the Justice bulletin advises officers that raves
represent little threat:

"As a whole, those ravers who use drugs seem to manage their drug use, not
letting it disrupt other facets of their lives . . . Few rave-related users
get seriously addicted to drugs and few turn to crime to finance their drug
use . . . In some respects raves are safer places for young people,
especially women, than conventional bars and clubs."

The law of unintended consequences is plaguing another Bush administration
project -- the attempt to link the war on drugs with the war on terrorism.
Walters and Ashcroft have repeatedly described Colombia's drug-dealing
Revolutionary Armed Forces as part of a global terrorist network -- an
assertion that has been derided publicly by Representative William Delahunt,
ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee. At the same
time, Walters' office has produced a series of public-service ads linking
casual marijuana use to terrorism, an even broader stretch.

The real consequences for drug policy of the war on terrorism were
unexpectedly suggested to Walters in June 2002 during a visit to San
Antonio. Walters was the celebrity guest at a luncheon intended to honor a
local anti-drug coalition. Instead of another photo op, he found himself
cornered by local activists alarmed at what the administration's border- and
drug-enforcement strictures were doing to their community. "With way more
security along the borders because of the terrorist threat, the supply of
drugs is also affected," coalition director Beverly Watts Davis told
Walters, as reported by the San Antonio Express News. "Gang violence is
going up as drug dealers fight over the limited supply. And when we decrease
the supply of drugs the price rises, and the people out there trying to get
crack cocaine and heroin are stealing more . . . And the response from
Washington is 'Gosh, we never realized that.'"

Whatever the future of specific reform efforts, it's clear that November's
referendum defeats did not "turn the tide" in the drug war. To the contrary.
With states strapped for cash, with post-Trent Lott political awareness that
racial inequity is still an issue with legs, with the contradictions and
sheer unreality of the Bush administration's drug policies ever more evident
to law enforcement and the courts, John Walters will not lead his troops out
of the quagmire anytime soon.
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