HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html A Look At . . . The Drug War's Future The Wrong
Pubdate: Sun, 06 May 2001
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2001 The Washington Post Company
Author: Michael Massing


In the more than three months since George W. Bush became president, the 
drug-policy world has eagerly awaited his choice of drug czar. Bush's 
repeated campaign references to his compassionate conservatism and his 
candid remarks about his own battles with alcohol raised expectations that 
he might name someone familiar with the social and medical dimensions of 
drug addiction. Now the president has indicated his choice: John P. 
Walters. And he seems to be exactly the wrong man for the job.

That's because, if Walters's background is any guide, he will put 
prosecution before prevention, tougher laws before treatment.

During the many years I spent researching the U.S. war on drugs, I became 
fascinated with Walters's evolution from a political scientist enamored of 
Plato and Edmund Burke to a Washington player captivated by the glamour and 
romance of the drug war. As a senior official at the Office of National 
Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) from 1989 to 1993, serving under William 
Bennett and Bob Martinez, Walters became known for his preoccupation with 
the national security dimensions of drug policy. Every morning, Walters 
would preside over an hour-long intelligence briefing, meeting with 
representatives from the Defense Department, CIA, DEA, Customs and the 
State Department. Some people in the office found the meetings so long and 
inconclusive that they did all they could to stay away, but Walters 
relished discussing such arcana as radar sightings, marijuana seizures and 
choke points in the Caribbean. As his top aide, he hired a former Navy SEAL 
who loved to boast about his daring feats on secret missions.

Walters also became known for his conviction that the best way to fight 
drugs is at their source. Before joining ONDCP, Walters had never been to 
Latin America, but he began making regular visits to the heartland of 
cocaine. There, this former student of the neo-conservative intellectual 
Allan Bloom waded into coca fields, visited police barracks, flew on C-130 
transports. In Peru, Walters urged the government to go after local coca 
producers and to intercept smugglers. In Colombia, he prodded officials to 
go pursue Pablo Escobar and other leaders of the Medellin cartel. He was 
taken with the "kingpin" theory of drug enforcement -- that the best way to 
disrupt the drug trade was to lop off its heads.

Back in Washington, Walters helped fashion the Andean Strategy, a 
five-year, $2 billion program to provide the region's officials the 
military and economic assistance they needed to fight the drug trade. The 
Andean plan -- Walters's chief legacy at ONDCP -- brought about a major 
escalation in the U.S. military's involvement in the drug war. It marked 
the start of the Peruvian air force's shoot-down policy that resulted in 
last month's attack on an American missionary plane. And it was a 
forerunner of Plan Colombia, Washington's $1.3 billion program to fight 
cocaine production there. Overall, in the decade since Walters's handiwork 
was adopted, the United States has spent many billions of dollars trying to 
stem the flow of drugs into this country.

It hasn't worked. Today, according to recent government studies, cocaine is 
cheaper and more plentiful here than ever before. So is heroin. Marijuana 
is peddled in shopping malls, schoolyards and urban parks across America, 
and methamphetamine has become a fixture in rural and working-class 
communities in the western United States. By now, even many drug war hawks 
have begun to acknowledge the futility of our effort to keep drugs out of 
the country and to recognize that the true root of our problem is demand.

But, on this front, we have made little headway. While casual drug use has 
dropped significantly since the mid-1980s, hard-core use has not. Today, 
according to ONDCP, the United States has an estimated 5 million chronic 
users of heroin, cocaine, crack and methamphetamine. And, as I found during 
my research, many of them are stealing to support their habit, neglecting 
their kids while getting high, passing out on subway trains, cycling in and 
out of the courts.

In short, this hard-core group causes most of the social problems 
associated with drugs. Yet we have made only half-hearted efforts to help 
it. For the past 20 years, the federal government has devoted most of its 
resources to arresting, prosecuting and confining these users. Year after 
year, the single largest expenditure in the drug budget goes for prison 
space to house drug offenders.

We don't do this to alcohol abusers -- we recognize they need help. So do 
drug abusers. Yet help is often not there. According to government 
statistics, treatment is available for only about half of those who need 
it. Traveling around the country, I've been struck by how many communities 
lack even a single residential center or methadone clinic. Of course, not 
all addicts want help. But many do -- witness the long waiting lists in 
many cities. Improved outreach can help bring in more from the street.

Dollar for dollar, studies show, treatment is far more effective in 
reducing drug use than is law enforcement, border interdiction or hunting 
kingpins in Latin America. Over the years, I have met many people, from 
musicians to homeless people, who have gotten better in treatment. Needless 
to say, many of those who enter programs will eventually relapse. But even 
if they stay off drugs for only a limited period, treatment more than pays 
for itself. And its value grows when it is combined with vocational 
training, job placement and other services designed to ease users back into 

Nonetheless, treatment remains seriously underfunded. According to some 
estimates, the federal government would have to spend $4 billion more a 
year on treatment over current levels to make it available on request. 
Surely it's time we had a drug czar committed to doing this.

John Walters is not that person. During his time at ONDCP, federal spending 
on treatment did increase some, but not nearly enough to meet the demand. 
In a conversation after he left office, Walters told me that "there's a lot 
of skepticism about treatment. People think it's a revolving door." Bob 
Martinez, he said, wanted to leave as his "trademark" as drug czar a shift 
in drug spending away from supply reduction toward demand reduction. 
Martinez also wanted to do more about alcohol abuse. On both counts, 
however, Walters indicated, he was dissuaded.

Since leaving ONDCP, Walters has directed both the New Citizenship Project 
and the Philanthropy Roundtable and appeared before Congress more than a 
dozen times to talk about drug policy. Reading his statements, I was struck 
by their partisan and hawkish tone. At a hearing in July 1996, for 
instance, he attacked the Clinton administration for attempting to provide 
more treatment for hard-core users. This "ineffectual policy," he declared, 
was "the latest manifestation of the liberals' commitment to a 'therapeutic 
state' in which the government serves as the agent of personal 
rehabilitation." Walters also expressed unbending support for tough 
penalties for drug offenses and dismissed the idea that there are too many 
low-level drug offenders in prisons. An "all-too-common myth," he called it.

Increasing numbers of Americans disagree. Most telling of all has been the 
outpouring of acclaim for the movie "Traffic." Its depiction of the 
failures of the drug war in Mexico, and its portrayal of drug abuse as a 
problem deeply embedded in our families and communities, have driven even 
such hard-liners as Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah to acknowledge the 
need for a more enlightened policy.

In short, a sea change seems to be taking place in American attitudes 
toward drugs. Unfortunately, President Bush, in putting forward John 
Walters, seems oblivious to it. If Walters does become drug czar, it would 
represent a giant step backward in how we deal with addiction.Michael 
Massing is the author of "The Fix" (University of California Press), a 
critique of the U.S. war on drugs.
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