Bush Drug Plan Faces Questions On Capitol Hill
Lawmakers will want to know source of funding; how consistent will the strategy be? WAR ON NARCOTICS
WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT BUSH this week settled on a broader, more expensive attack on drugs in what is likely to be the administration's most prominent initiative this fall. But when the plan gets to Congress, the first question asked will be: Where will the money to fund the program come from?
The drug plan will require at least $1 billion over current spending, yet Congress is still $1.3 billion short of funding last year's major drug legislation.
The next question lawmakers and drug-fighting bureaucrats will ask is how long and how consistently the strategy will be carried out over the next few years.
``The real potential is the sustained effort and the support behind that effort,'' says Linda Lewis, deputy assistant secretary for alcohol and drug abuse in Florida's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.
``They've got to really work the strategy, not just announce it,'' says Edward Jurith, staff director of the House Select Committee on Narcotics.
The strategy is the product of five months of research by William Bennett, director of national drug control policy, and his staff, who interviewed hundreds of experts and drug-war combatants.
It promises more of almost everything - law enforcement on the streets, assistance to Latin American countries at war with drug traffickers, treatment programs, and federal prison space.
The Bennett plan represents an important shift away from border interdiction, which is not slated for a funding increase. It focuses instead on crack cocaine dealing on the streets of the nation's big cities.
While the US government has been spending billions of dollars to stop drugs from entering the country in the past eight years, illegal cocaine imports have multiplied, and the prices for the drug have dropped substantially.
The drug scourge is most visible on urban streets. Prostitution and petty theft abound in neighborhoods where crack dealers operate openly. There are frequent news reports of murders - often of innocent bystanders - resulting from drug deals gone bad.
Bennett says he expects resistance over his decision to emphasize law enforcement and forcing drug abusers into treatment rather than stressing more treatment for those who voluntarily seek it.
But so far, there has been little resistance, and staff members both in Congress and in state and local organizations expect little serious debate over the plan's philosophy.
Public concern over drug abuse is so strong, notes Brookings Institution political scientist Thomas Mann, that liberal Democrats in Congress would be taking a political gamble to question a tough stance on drugs.
The details of the strategy have not been decided yet. But Bush approved Bennett's outline after a series of meetings early this week.
The President will hash out the specifics while on vacation in Kennebunkport, Maine, over the next three weeks. By law, he is required to send a plan to Congress Sept. 5, the day he returns to Washington.
Bush told reporters this week that his drug strategy would require money to be shifted from elsewhere in the federal budget. He will announce how this is to be done in September; budget director Richard Darman is currently working up proposals.
Bennett's plan carry a strong overtone of moralism. He wants institutions at all levels of society to send out a strong message of intolerance for drug abuse.
Various drafts of his proposals have discussed extensive drug testing, revoking driver's licenses of first-time drug offenders and publishing their names in local newspapers, and using state law to commit drug addicts to treatment programs even if they have not been charged with a crime.
His goal is a 50 percent drop in drug abuse in 10 years, and a 10 percent drop in two years.
An early version of his report stressed the fight against casual use of milder drugs such as marijuana almost as strongly as against the heavy crack use. But that approach was revised after a report by the National Institute of Drug Abuse came out July 31 indicating that drug use overall was in significant decline. Only the heavy use of crack was still on the rise.
Bennett has been doing more revising of his plan during August as his proposals have been floated around the White House staff and cabinet offices. The Justice Department has reportedly stymied his plan to create a single intelligence-sharing agency run by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as his plan for a committee to review federal drug policy.
A major motive in creating Bennett's position was to coordinate the drug effort between sometimes-competing agencies.
The National Security Council is still reviewing plans to use the US military in noncombat roles in Latin American source countries for cocaine.
The plan will almost certainly call for a $200 million increase in federal assistance to state and local law enforcement. The US Conference of Mayors spokesman Mike Brown says that is not much: ``By the time $200 million gets spread across 50 states and the cities within those states, it doesn't amoount to much.''
Ms. Lewis is more hopeful: ``It certainly has the potential to be the beginning of a difference.''