Bush's double message on the drug war

He's advocating treatment and prevention, but has nominated a drug czar known for his tough approach.

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John Walters will have a delicate line to walk.

As President Bush's new nominee for drug czar, Mr. Walters is known as a "get tough" drug warrior - a champion of the war on drugs, including its aggressive interdiction efforts and long mandatory sentences for drug offenders.

Yet he's arriving on the national scene as harder questions are being asked about the effectiveness of that "war" and its toll on communities - from over-burdened prison systems that are draining state budgets to easy accessibility of drugs that are even cheaper and purer than a decade ago.

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In an acknowledgment of such concerns, Mr. Bush himself focused on the need to increase treatment and prevention as he announced Walters's nomination last Thursday. In pledging an "unprecedented" and "unwavering commitment" to reduce drug use in America, he didn't even mention the word "war," making him the first chief executive since President Richard Nixon to omit the bellicose term in a major speech on drug policy.

Walters, however, has long been a critic of some of the very strategies the president is advocating. It seems the Bush administration is sending a double message, trying to appease both drug-war advocates, with Walters's appointment, and drug-war opponents.

So far, many drug experts have said they're heartened by Bush's statements but are taking a wait-and-see approach. Their caution is due primarily to Walters's own history and statements, which could prove to be his biggest stumbling blocks when he goes before the Senate for confirmation hearings.

"He has to deal with his own statements, congressional testimony, and articles," says former drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey."[Walters] did essentially say we had more than enough drug-treatment capacity now and expressed great skepticism about whether it really works ... and seemed to make fun of it. When, in fact, we know that science-based treatment does work."

Controversial politics

Walters headed up interdiction efforts under William Bennett, who served as drug czar in the previous Bush administration.In the early 1990s, Walters co-authored a book predicting that inner cities would produce a new kind of "super predator" teen criminal.Instead, the teenage crime rate has steadily decreased. And in a recent piece in the Weekly Standard, a conservative political magazine, he bemoaned the new "war on punishment and prisons" and attacked drug-war critics as the "therapy-only lobby."

"If it weren't for the ideology associated with treatment - addiction is a disease, not a pattern of behavior for which people can be held responsible - law enforcement and punishment would be natural partners of the treatment providers," Walters wrote.

But critics were particularly infuriated by Walters's description of the "great urban myths of our time," which include the "widely held view that (1) we are imprisoning too many people for merely possessing illegal drugs, (2) drug and other criminal sentences are too long and harsh, and (3) the criminal-justice system is unjustly punishing young black men."

"Those are not myths," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of The Lindesmith Center Drug Policy Foundation, a drug-policy-reform organization in New York. "Those are the facts of the drug war, and it's sad Walters can't distinguish between them."

Wrong priorities?

Many drug-policy experts are also skeptical about Walters's stance on international interdiction efforts. He supports the efforts, which critics say have been shown to be ineffective. About 70 percent of the $19 billion spent annually to combat drug use currently goes toward interdiction efforts, and 30 percent goes to treatment and prevention efforts.

"The evidence is clear that closing down cocaine and heroin production in one place simply opens it up in another place," says David Rosenbloom of Boston University's School of Public Health. "I think Walters needs to be asked what's going to dominate - his personal beliefs or the evidence."

Even supporters of US interdiction efforts in Latin America say Walters needs to work on improving his public image in order to gain credibility.

"A combative approach can be compatible with being effective, but it can be extremely counterproductive if you're not viewed as reasonable, balanced, and wise," says Jonathan Winer, a former top official involved in the State Department's antidrug efforts. "Walters's ability to be effective in this job is not being facilitated by the reputation he enters the position with of being a hard-nosed tough guy."

A changing drug policy

Walters's appointment aside, many experts believe that a shift is under way in the nation's drug policy. They point to the increases Bush has asked for in the drug-treatment and prevention budgets, as well as his request for a state-by-state analysis to determine if the nation has enough treatment capacity.

"President Bush really focused on demand reduction in an unprecedented way," says Joseph Califano, former Health and Human Services secretary under President Jimmy Carter and director of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University here. "Remember, Walters is a member of the White House staff. He's going to do what the president tells him to do, and the president was loud and clear."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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